The family picnics I remember from the early 1960s usually began with a long, hot car ride to a public park for a full day of softball games, horseshoes and sunbathing with myriad aunts, uncles and pesky cousins. This was merely the prelude to the big event: a late-afternoon supper at wobbly tables dragged close to one of the park's charcoal grills, on which hot dogs and hamburgers sizzled. Bowls and platters of potato salad, baked beans, devilled eggs, coleslaw, chocolate cake, fruit pies and half-melted homemade vanilla ice cream would be laid before us. (Given the lack of refrigeration and the abundance of mayonnaise-based salads, it's a wonder food poisoning doesn't figure into my childhood memories.)
Fast-forward a generation, and today's outdoor meals are more often adult affairs served just outside the patio door, with co-ordinated linens and plates, and all the ambience (and stress) of fancy dinner parties. But there's no reason you can't combine the casual comfort of old-style family picnics with today's convenience of a backyard barbecue (and indoor refrigeration). A potluck picnic held in a garden with plenty of space to spread out can be fun, festive and stress-free, especially when everyone pitches in.
Prep the garden
Two days before the event, give the lawn a thorough soaking. Watering on the morning of the picnic means paths and lawn areas will be squishy underfoot. On the big day, water containers and flower beds.
Deadhead spent blooms, stake floppy plants and weed just the front edges of perennial beds if you're short on time. (Remember, it's a picnic, not an inspection by the local horticultural society.) If your beds are looking a bit tired, fill in blank spots by moving in containers from the patio—this will also free up seating areas. Pack up hoses and tools (to prevent accidents), tie brightly coloured yarn to the tops of garden stakes (to make sure no one smelling the flowers gets a poke in the eye) and stabilize teetering steps or loose paving stones (so no one stumbles).
The host family's kitchen will get heavy use, too. Clear space in the refrigerator for salads and entrees that need to be kept cold. Also have on hand extra sunscreen and bug spray, hats and old blankets or rugs for kids to spread on the grass for games and giggling. Make sure you have plenty of propane (or charcoal).