How to Have a Park Wedding

Insider tips for the perfect al fresco affair

Updated 11/09/17

Olivia Rae James

If you're an outdoorsy kind of guy or gal, take a fresh approach to your wedding and get married in a park—because nothing beats a natural setting and plenty of sunshine. And the cost is tempting—most permits and location fees are on the extra-affordable side, and many of the parks turn out to be free outdoor wedding venues. However, if you're not prepared for the possible pitfalls—bad weather, annoying insects—your dream day can play out like an Outward Bound adventure. To help you plan a snafu-free wedding in a park, here's a garden's worth of good advice, plus some pretty decor ideas!

Laying the Groundwork

Before settling on a ceremony site, visit it several times during the same season, day of the week, and time of day as you plan to marry. Take note of pedestrian traffic and the position of the sun; this will determine where you place your officiant, bridal party, and guests. (For example, you don't want people squinting into late-afternoon rays.)

Try to anticipate potential problems beforehand. Are there any restroom facilities? Is there ample parking? You also need to find out if other events that might be disruptive—a concert or Little League game—will be taking place during your vows. Park officials may be able to clue you in.

The Logistics

Shot of table and reception

Photo by Volvoreta

Once you've determined the perfect place, contact the park's administrative office and find out if weddings are allowed there. After you get the OK, ask about regulations and whether you have to reserve the site. You'll most likely need at least one permit, which is usually issued by your local parks department. It will state whether you will be allowed to bring in chairs and toilets, play music, and have guests throw birdseed. Read the fine print to see if there's a cleanup stipulation. Many parks charge fines for garbage left behind.

Permits are usually issued free of charge, but you'll probably have to pay a small location fee. "National parks charge anywhere between $50 and $200," says Roger di Silvestro, senior director of communications for the National Parks Conservation Association, in Washington, D.C. "State, city, and town parks each have their own fees, which will vary from place to place."

The Flowers

Bride in Off-the-Shoulder Wedding Dress with Long-Stemmed Bouquet

Photo by Shannon Moffit

An outdoor wedding calls for a bouquet that can brave all sorts of weather. "Mums, alstroemeria, and calla lilies survive better than other blooms on a sultry day," says Carole Langrall, of A Garden of Earthly Delights in Baltimore. "Tropical flowers, like orchids, are also good choices. They're used to heat, so they stay fresh and vibrant longer."

Roses may be popular wedding-day picks, but they don't make the cut when it comes to a bouquet that will be used outdoors. "They wilt pretty quickly," explains Langrall, "but if they're your favorite flower, choose leonidas roses, which have hearty bicolored blooms with terra-cotta and apricot hues." Avoid wildflowers and bulb flowers (tulips, daffodils); sturdy blossoms like sunflowers and heather are better bets.

After you make your selection, ask your florist if she can apply a preservative to the flowers that will help them stay fresh. Langrall suggests immediately placing your bouquet and bridesmaids' blooms in a bucket of cold water once they arrive at the ceremony site. If stems can't be submerged (perhaps because they're wrapped in ribbon), at least try to find a shady spot, she says. "Keeping them out of the sun for as long as possible will help them look even more beautiful."

The Weather

Ceremony Gazebo

Photo by The Nichols

If Mother Nature is having a bad day, it may translate into a rain-soaked ceremony site. So it pays to always have a Plan B. The safest strategy is to secure a permit that will allow you to use an existing gazebo or band shell if one is close at hand. And although tents aren't usually used for ceremonies, you might consider renting one for the day; check with park officials beforehand about regulations. (Just be prepared to pay for it, regardless of the weather.)

Another contingency plan is to hold your ceremony at the home of a friend or relative who lives close to your original location. (That way, guests won't have to scramble with alternative transportation routes the day of the wedding.) Print the address and a phone number to call that morning on a rain card, and include it in your invitations so guests know exactly where to go. And remember that no matter what the skies decide to throw your way, a little humor—and a big umbrella—will help save the day.

The Dress

Matthew Land Studios

Since most park weddings take place during the daylight hours, a bride shouldn't look like she's attending the Oscars. Save the glitter and beading for a nighttime celebration, as it looks out of place before dark. Instead, opt for simple and chic—like a simple silk slip dress, or something light and ethereal instead of heavy or grand.

Also, make sure you have the hemline raised to the top of your instep—a half inch higher than you would for an indoor wedding—as this will keep your dress from dragging in the grass.

Just as eveningwear is a fashion faux pas for the daytime bride, tuxedos are taboo for the groom. If yours will be a formal affair, he can wear a stroller or morning coat with striped pants. A four-in-hand tie completes the look. Keeping things casual? Then have him choose a dark suit paired with a dress shirt and tie. The important thing to keep in mind is that the formality of his outfit should match the formality of your dress.

Religious Affiliations

Photo by Jasmine Lee Photography

Some members of the clergy will only perform wedding ceremonies within a house of worship. So before you book that special spot by the lake, make sure your officiant is willing to work on location. While many Protestant and Jewish couples are free to tie the knot outdoors, Roman Catholics are encouraged to marry inside a church. "But each of the nation's dioceses, which are run by bishops, has its own rules," explains Father Sean Martin, director of the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies at the University of Dallas in Irvington, Texas. "So call ahead to speak with your priest. He may be willing to make an exception."

Park Wedding Decor

Since your celebration is being held somewhere with natural beauty, you don't need to do too much to dress it up. The main thing is making sure you can transform the space enough so that it feels more personal, not like a public space. No matter what, you want your decor to feel effortless and breezy—so skip any details that make it feel fussy and unnatural. For instance, shy away from large lanterns in trees (including chandeliers—a trend from a few years ago) and opt for twinkle or bistro string lights. Instead of over-the-top, massive floral arrangements, sprinkle smaller centerpieces and bud vases along your tables.

To ensure that your outdoor wedding celebration stays on track, do these three things in advance.

1. Point the way. Let guests know where to find you by including detailed directions with your invitations or on your wedding website. Be specific about where they should assemble: "The gazebo at the duck pond, Liberty Park"—not "Liberty Park." If allowed, post signs in the vicinity.

2. Get wired. If you plan to use a microphone, make sure the location has an electrical source.

3. Mark the spot. To prevent unwanted guests from wandering in, partition off the ceremony area (tying white satin ribbons around trees is a nice touch) and appoint someone in your party to welcome all invitees. Having an official "host" will discourage drop-ins.

Because you can never be too prepared, keep the following items on hand to safeguard against any calamity that may occur during your park wedding ceremony.

  • Bug spray
  • Water bottles
  • Umbrellas
  • Paper fans
  • Sunscreen
  • Cell phone
  • Tissues/paper towels

Related Stories