BETWEEN stabbing salad on a scratch of pavement in town to spoiling guests in whatever outdoor space we had, al-fresco invention really saved our sanity this summer. With Covid-19 concerns still limiting our socialising, there’s every reason to extend the outdoor entertaining season. Here’s everything you need to know to be a winter wonder host at home.
Getting undercover will save your event, be it an intimate afternoon tea enfolded in geansaithe, a frenetic, family First Communion bash, or searing steaks under the stars. Drifting rain is almost poetic once you’re under an awning nipping at the Earl Grey.
The cheapest solution for the uncovered patio is either throwing back the doors and doing an outdoor/indoor seating layout for whatever comes, adding a simple sail over the entry way. Sails and awnings should be large enough to create a wide dry area, and will outdo a standard summer parasol which will always be defeated by an Irish, horizontal rainstorm. If you’re leaving the gazebo up in the deteriorating weather of October/November, check those ground anchors and ties are firm enough to prevent it becoming a dangerous kite.
Rigid poly-carbonate panels set on a steel or timber-frame for a small patio of three-four square metres, start in the area of €1,400 ex.installation. They are worth consideration for UV and weather protection year-round, that’s firmly part of the architecture of the house (bloody awful if you get it wrong). Retractable awnings that roll back into a cassette are versatile, and we found 2m X 3m examples in mould-resistant polyester, fully waterproof with a UV-resistance of UV50+ under €390 for
home installation at dancovershop.ie
For seasonal service, a 4m x 4m water-resistant sail-style awning in kit form with D rings, tension wires and wall anchors starts around €130 for a DIY install. Canvas sails can tack off down the garden to obliging trees if you have a sweet spot rather than a house-tied patio. Any fabric (non PVC) sail or awning will gather pooling water, so don’t poke them if it does lash from the heavens. The material will be wet, but will bead and guide water off to the set side. Try fruugo.ie for bargain Oxford cloth sails in a range of colours.
Size any patio cover to allow a wide perimeter with furnishings at the centre. Most garden suites come in weatherproof cushions, but no-one wants a damp derriere.
Think about creating a wind/rain break when positioning the over-hang. The Ikea Dyning privacy screen can be secured to fencing or a balcony rail with ties, €12, ikea.ie. Outdoor rugs can really dress up a winter gathering. The Monty and Antibes range from Harvey Norman start at just €68 for a tribal print in 100% polypropylene. Ikea also has a generous selection of water-sloughing flat weaves. Share out some soft, luxuriant cushions, bolsters, knee rugs and faux fur throws and USB charged hot-bottles for a hint of the Viking feasting hall.
Sitting out on the patio, or dawdling in front of a garden room, the cooler, damp, sweet sensations of September are not as user friendly as July. The go-to for warming kWs for many brave outdoor entertainers year-round is a propane gas heater. They do provide a very direct, quick, fierce heat and are front-and-centre in the 50% off, end-of-season sales. They are extraordinarily inefficient, an environmental bogey man, and their performance is susceptible in any sort of breezy conditions.
A 12.5kW gas heater will produce almost 35kg of CO2 on a full cylinder in about10-13 hours (Energy Savings Trust). Instead, choose bioLPG (made in part from renewable waste, residues and plant oils), seasoned wood (20% moisture content) or even the latest, greatest, electric solutions run on renewable energy from a carefully selected power supplier during your last switch-and-save.
LPG/bioLPG is good for a high (8kW plus) fireplace look and output with ceramic rocks/logs and a push-button flickering flame show, but the units can be expensive, shop around.
Electric short-wave infrared heat technology (IR) is emissions-free, silent, rain-proof and simply plugs-in through an RCD power point. Coming up to temp in 60 seconds, it can use as little as 2kW and heats the body safely and directly rather than warming a passing breeze. IR demands careful positioning as beyond 2m - 3m of the parasol or fireplace style unit, you and yours will feel the chill. Look for low light carbon-fibre that won’t blind your guests into a trip into the flower bed, rather than dazzling halogen and quartz units. A movable dedicated stand suited to the branding offers versatility to go under cover or further out on the slabs on a balmy, dry night. Check Helvetic for stands from €120, and PS25 remote/app operated carbon-fibre heaters in the €290 range with rain-ready IP65 ratings, helvetic.ie. Budget 1500W, IR heat-lights from €160, nisbets.ie.
The watercolour dusk of early evening in September/October is perfect for real flame, and with the addition of some BBQ and marshmallow talents, economical braziers, fire-pits, chimeneas and traditional charcoal barrel BBQs can really come into their own. The primal pull towards the fire is wonderful in a carefully managed, adult gathering, where the main cooking is handled inside (to head off any disastrous downpour). A few treats can be handled on the griddle. Vulcan BBQ grills in a fire-basket form start at €99, and handsome hearth-like Cubo fire pits with add on-grills, from €230 (sale price) at outdoors.ie.
Bio-ethanol is another attractive real-flame solution, offering gentle warmth of 2.5kW, which in my view is atmospheric rich but thermally completely useless in the faintest breeze. With less predictable weather as standard, beware of drifting flame from a low fire pit, that could scorch or burn a passing guest.
Weatherproofed, enclosed units with a chimney-like the XL Murcia chimenea (136cm tall) with a hinged, front mesh door are far safer, €180, thegardenshop.ie
The shifting, contrasty light of any outdoor fire should be part of a wider, safer lighting scheme; don’t rely on it to guide tipsy family and friends around by night. Introduce an even wash of light to prevent tripping becoming a seriously unpleasant end to an evening carouse. Security lights tripped by PIR are useless here unless your spotlights can be set to stay on.
The glow of solar in borders and raking up under trees — gorgeous. For more intense light, mains fed additions cannot be bested. Set of four pin-spots from €76, lampandlight.ie. Drift battery-fed fairy lights over fences, posts and drape from awnings (tie the battery units up with small freezer bags and rubber bands to protect them from dew and count them as expendable).
Dimmable LEDs are great power savers, magical in trees as ‘bubble balls’, €15.90 for 30, lights.ie. Economical industrial styled solar festoon lights in 5m lengths start at €17 a set, lightinthebox.com
Lump-wood charcoal is a great fuel for the BBQ year-round with a delicious scent, but cooking outdoors, have a back-up plan unless your patio is completely under cover.
Pick up some long toasting forks, a few bags of large marshmallows and melt some chocolate ahead of time. 8, Newthinking telescopic 81cm Toasting Forks, from €14 on Amazon. Bliss.
Prep all ingredients indoors to simplify the process whatever your fuel choice. If the cook spot is the brightest point of light, the gathering will circle around you, so set out a safe traffic path to flit back and forth to the kitchen.
Gas BBQs can be set as far under-cover and out of the breeze behind their hood, flat to the house wall and under an awning. Don’t use any electrical device including an electric BBQ, without an outdoor RCD plug; they will save you a terrifying blue flash at the very least, and a potential electric shock if it starts drizzling on your dinner party — and trust me darling, it will!