Outdoor table settings – 8 secrets to creating the perfect al fresco dining experience

Try these outdoor table settings and table decor ideas to create a dreamy entertaining space in your own backyard

 a vibrant orange tablescape design
(Image credit: Olive & Co)

Beautiful outdoor table settings and curated tablescapes are a sure-fire way to impress your guests with that little bit of extra effort when hosting outdoors. A major trend, hosting at home has well and truly ramped up a notch with tables laden with flowers, candles, place names, delicately folded napkins and that all-important tablecloth. 

'Elaborate table decor is becoming the norm in style-first households,' says Sarah Spiteri, editorial director at Livingetc. 'Hosting and entertaining is no longer just about putting on a fabulous feast.'

When entertaining friends and family, think about your garden like an extension of your home. From cooking at an outdoor kitchen to creating an aesthetically pleasing tablescape, you can show your guests you've gone above and beyond.

'Planning a table, using color, texture and shapes to create an engaging and inviting setting is something I've always loved doing,' says Carole Bamford, founder of Daylesford Organic farm shops, who has just collaborated with Colefax and Fowler to create a collection of beautiful garden dining pieces. 'An elegant, curated table sets the tone for a meal. It expresses a sense of occasion and shows your guests or family that you've made a special effort.' 

It's also easier to achieve a considered and beautiful outdoor table than you might think. 'It's so easy to do with just a few items. A dressed table outside creates the ultimate sense of occasion,' says Avery Cox, founder of Avery Cox Design, boutique residential interior design firm in Austin

How to come up with great ideas for outdoor table settings

When considering where to start with planning your outdoor table settings for al fresco hosting, look to the garden around you. Inspiration for design could be right in front of you. Consider the type of plants that are budding in your garden, is it a lilac-colored wisteria that can be used to influence your table setting, or perhaps a tropical garden makes a great basis for palms displayed along the table.

'I like to let natural elements guide my table design whenever I host outdoor dinner parties,' explains Anastasia Casey, founder of IDCO Studio and Design Camp of Austin. 'My process starts with a trip to the farmer's market, where I can take notice of the seasonal flowers, herbs and produce in season and let the bounty speak for itself.' 

Also think about the event itself – is it a soiree that will turn into night, a English tea style brunch or a intimate birthday party. Whatever reason you are hosting, these are the ways to elevate your tablescape game above and beyond.

1. Add height with candlesticks

Tall candlesticks on a table

(Image credit: Rockett St George)

Colourful candlesticks or an assortment of shapes and sizes are great for adding height, and can give the table a decadent, banquet feel. Think tall spiral candles in colored wax, beautiful candlestick holders and delicate glass tea light holders which add texture and a firefly glow to your table.

They also weigh the table down while looking opulent, and add garden lighting once the sun begins to set on your evening. Candles also give off warmth too, which can be useful as the day transitions into the cooler temperatures of the night. 

Combine function with aesthetic and also introduce some candles made with essential oils to your tablescape. 'Citronella candles are a great addition to set throughout the table to add ambiance, and they keep the bugs away too,' says Anastasia Casey, founder of IDCO Studio and Design Camp

'I place tapered candles in glass candlesticks, like from the Olive & Co X Issy Granger collaboration to compliment the linens and crockery and place them in between the vases, then add low little tea lights for added effect,' says Milly Simmonds, founder of  homeware brand, Olive & Co. 'Make sure you choose your colours and create a match. That way the tablescape will flow and really catch peoples attention!”

2. Think about your lighting fixtures

A pendant hangs from a tree

(Image credit: Nathalie Priem. Design: Georgia Lindsay Garden Design)

Outdoor dining lighting ideas allow the space to evolve and change as the daylight fades, turning from a lighting fixture which is purely aesthetic, to something that is functional as the daylight fades, giving way to a romantic and atmospheric dining set-up at nighttime. 

Think about hanging pendants from trees to bring a sense of the indoors, outside, making your garden like an outdoor living room, while adding a quirkiness to your scheme. Go for pretty patterned lampshades which will pop during the day, or wicker and bamboo fixtures that mimic the surrounding nature, as seen in this example from garden designer, Georgia Lindsay.

Here, a majestic ailanthus altissima grows up through the atrium of this North London house, immerging through to the second floor roof terrace. It forms the perfect dappled shade for a relaxed lunch. 'Adding a pendant light can help to ground the seating zone into the garden. By placing an overhead structure above a seating area, whether it be a pergola, festoon lights or pendant light helps to enclose the space giving a feeling of privacy,' explains Georgia. 'By focusing the seating area, you instantly give the illusion of an outdoor room with a pocket of central light to draw the attention inwards which is turn creates a cozy atmosphere,' she adds.

'Our customers are using large pendant lights to create outdoor rooms in their gardens,' adds founder of lighting brand Ella James, Ashley Todd. 'They are matching them with outdoor sofa sets and gazebos to create cosy space for entertaining friends into the evening. The beauty of these solar pendants is that you do not need an outdoor socket, the solar battery needs to be exposed to light during the day and will simply turn on at night when dusk falls. They can be left outside during the summer months and the battery will re-charge,'

A string of glass bulb solar fairy lights also makes for a nice touch, and you can artfully weave the lights from a fence, through a tree or along a brick wall to create a well-lit garden aesthetic. 

3. Vases of flowers and plants

Flowers make a great outdoor centerpiece

(Image credit: Olive and Co)

A favorite on every tablescape, indoors or out, a fresh bouquet of flowers, or individual single stems in delicate glass vases dotted along the table make for beautiful table decor. Think about what's seasonal (even from your own cut flower garden) from blooming peonies and delicate elderflowers in May time to a bold pop of chrysanthemums in late summer. 'There's no doubt about it, fresh flowers bring any table setting to life,' says Alice Herbert of tablescape service, Lay London.

'We think small bud vases along the table are often more effective than a couple of large center pieces, adding a feel of fullness to the table. For a summery feel, small potted orange trees or strawberry plants are great for vivid colour and a fruity scent. If the weather rains-off your al fresco dining plans, then double down on flowers inside to give the table a bright, garden feel,' she adds.

Avery Cox of Avery Cox is also a fan of a natural component, whether it's flowers or a flowering tree branch to give the table some height. 'Always use heavy vessels if going really high, this will avoid them tipping over.'

4. Bring a color scheme to your tablescape

A colorful tablescape

(Image credit: Lay London)

A pared back tablescape can be simple and elegant, but the colors on your table should be joyful, says Alice. 'Color schemes don't have to be perfect and uniform. We style flatware in alternating colors on the table for a jewelry-box effect.' Take inspiration from the color wheel, like in this LAY London example where the blue and yellow balance each other out, or from the latest color trends. Think about embracing the mismatched crockery too, and go for an assortment of china in different patterns – handy also for when you're short of the same one thing. 

'We love creating a theme for the table and it helps for a color scheme too. We have created a 'Garden of Eden' inspired tablescape, opting for a leafy palette with multicolored linens, flower-specked Italian glassware and bud vases of wild flowers, cow parsley and sweet peas,' says Alice.

5. Set the scene with a statement tablecloth

A table next to a pond

(Image credit: Lisa Corti)

One of the most crucial details of your tablescape is setting the scene with a table cloth. It's the first thing that goes on to lay your table and can really pave the way in terms of pattern and color that you're going for. 'I love to use a table cloth for instant color and pattern,' says Joe, founder of Avery Cox Design. 'Lisa Corti's colorful designs are my favorite.' (pictured)

'I also recommend clipping the cloth underneath the table to help mitigate any wind interference. Oversized ceramics, candles and glass hurricanes help weigh your tablecloth down while providing a grand sense of scale,' adds Joe.

In terms of the trending colors and patterns, yellows, oranges, bright florals and sunny tones are the way to go, says Alice.

'Now is the time for brightness and florals,' she says. 'Stripes are always chic too, and green and white look great with flowers for an English garden feel. Or pick a blue and white palette for a nautical, seaside look,' she adds. 

6. Ditch the table and try a garden picnic

A garden picnic

(Image credit: Weaver Green)

Why not get rid of the table altogether and take your tablescape to ground level with a Boho-style picnic on the grass. 

'Picnicking isn’t something we can do every day, so it's worth making the most of it when the time arises,' says Alice of LAY London. 'Glam-up with a 'picnic-scape' to create a sense of occasion. 

'Opt for colourful tablecloths on the ground (patterns help to hide stains too!), comfy cushions, upturned wooden crates for serving food and displaying vases of flowers, plus a scattering of lanterns to give a glowy, magic Midsummer Night’s Dream look.'

7. Remember glistening glasswear and ceramics

Glassware in interesting colors

(Image credit: Duncan Campbell)

The glassware and ceramics that dot your table don't go unnoticed. Make sure to keep your scheme matching, and pick tasteful colored glassware that picks up on the natural light. Look to the likes of Campbell Rey for inspiration, who create thick glass goblets and flutes with beautifully stained glass bases, adding cheery round pops of color to your table.

Carole Bamford, founder of Daylesford Organic, and David Green, from Colefax and Fowler, have together created a stunning collection of plates and serving dishes that marry botanical illustrations with pale pastels tones. 'The collection was inspired by the botanical designs of Chelsea porcelain from the late eighteenth century, and features an enticing mix of English plants and flowers painted in a lively hand,' explains Carole. 

8. The smaller details

A garden table set-up decorated with flowers

(Image credit: Colefax and Fowler x Daylesford)

Finally, think about those small details that will get noticed by your guests. Handwritten place names are a small touch that adds to the formality and puts in place a seating plan, while napkins rolled and tied with a piece of ribbon and party favors for the table will really push the boat out. Order your cutlery the correct way for extra presentation points. 

What makes a great centerpiece for your outdoor table setting

For the centerpiece of your tablescape, it's time to get creative. 'I use chicken wire (much better than an oasis which is bad for the environment!) and pop it into my favourite vessel with water. Fill the holes in the chicken wire with your favourite foliage and blooms, it's wild and whimsical,' says Milly.

'One of my favorite things to do is to spray paint small downed tree branches a bright red to look like coral,' says Avery Cox. 'You can then place the finished product down the middle of the table nestled around your candles. This is something my mother used to do and it creates such a magical feel. They are also weather resistant and won't wilt in the sun.'

Oonagh Turner
Livingetc content editor and design expert

Oonagh is a content editor at Livingetc.com and an expert at spotting the interior trends that are making waves in the design world. Writing a mix of everything and everything from home tours to news, long-form features to design idea pieces on the website, as well as frequently featured in the monthly print magazine, she's the go-to for design advice in the home. Previously, she worked on a London property title, producing long-read interiors features, style pages and conducting interviews with a range of famous faces from the UK interiors scene, from Kit Kemp to Robert Kime. In doing so, she has developed a keen interest in London's historical architecture and the city's distinct tastemakers paving the way in the world of interiors.