How to Host a Star-Spangled Bash This Fourth of July

Landscape designer and cookbook author Leeann Lavin takes her Fourth of July party to great heights.

party planner Hostess extraordinaire Leeann Lavin (in stripes), together with her husband Bill, host an all-day Fourth of July party for friends and family in their gently sloping Atlantic Highlands backyard.
party planner Hostess extraordinaire Leeann Lavin (in stripes), together with her husband Bill, host an all-day Fourth of July party for friends and family in their gently sloping Atlantic Highlands backyard.
Photo by Laura Moss

Leeann Lavin loves a party, especially a Fourth of July party in her own backyard. The landscape designer and cookbook author and her husband, Bill, have an extraordinary setting where they host this annual gathering. Their Atlantic Highlands home sits high above Raritan Bay, with a view of the Verazzano Narrows Bridge and Coney Island. The couple invites friends and family to enjoy food, drink and festivities at their magical perch—with local fireworks as the backdrop.

The Landscape Designer
The Lavins purchased the split-level house in 1997 as a weekend and summer escape from their apartment in Manhattan’s West Village. Avid boaters, they were attracted to the property for its view of the Atlantic Highlands Marina. “This perch is so fabulous,” Lavin says.

While the house needed some cosmetic and structural work, it was the yard that got the lion’s share of attention; Lavin is a horticulturalist and owner of Duchess Designs, a landscape design and build firm. The new yard presented a rare opportunity to create for herself rather than for her clients.

For starters, Lavin designed and planted ornamental containers—mostly edible plants—on the terrace overlooking the bay. She calls it the Terrace Garden (Lavin assigns names to all her creations to create “a bond”). Just off the kitchen, she planted an extensive herb garden, complete with mint, oregano, rosemary, parsley, sage and more. “I mix up some of the plants every year,” says Lavin, “depending on the kinds of recipes we seem to be drawn to and making.”

Next, she turned her attention to the street side of the house. Here, Lavin created the Water Garden, a fountain bordered by cherry laurel and boxwood. For fragrance and color, she surrounded those plantings with lavender and salvia; in the summer months, she adds containers of red hibiscus. To create a romantic passageway between the front and back yards, Lavin planted two lines of coral bark Japanese maple trees, which became an awning over the path. It opens up to red roses, red hydrangeas and that spectacular view of the bay. “Gardens should provide a sense of journey,” says Lavin. “This is like a tunnel with a big reveal at the end.” Eventually, Lavin applied her talents to the flat backyard. A proponent of edible gardening—“it’s fun and easy to grow your own food,” she says—Lavin created the Farmette, with asparagus, garlic, peppers, peas, onions, shallots, tomatoes and potatoes. Another section produces apples, apricots, cherries, peaches and blueberries.  “I regularly prepare dinner out of the Farmette,” she says. “What we can’t eat, I freeze.”

Lavin continues to tinker in the yard. Recently, while weeding, she discovered a rock garden long since covered by grass and dirt. Intrigued, she excavated, discovering more rocks, some the size of boulders. She planted colorful blooms around the rocks—evening primrose, ice plants, toadflax, blue hair grass—and installed a statue of St. Francis, who proudly gazes at the bay. Naturally, she calls it the St. Francis Rock Garden.

The Hostess
The Lavins spend weeks planning their Fourth of July party. “It started as a little bit of a housewarming,” she says. “Over the years, it’s become a tradition.” The party always coincides with the town’s fireworks display. “The fireworks that Atlantic Highlands sets off are truly spectacular,” says Lavin. “It’s such a gift to us.”

The Lavins decorate the yard with American flags and patriotic bunting. “Bill is a Navy veteran and we are both patriots,” explains Lavin. Tables and chairs are positioned with the view in mind. Parking is a challenge, so Bill takes charge, carefully arranging cars (with “a Rubik’s Cube strategy”) in the tight driveway and along the quiet street.

Each guest brings a covered dish, adhering to Lavin’s plan. “Barbecue,” she says, “is the foundation of our menu.” Guests are greeted with a specialty cocktail that Lavin concocts. “When you ask someone, ‘what can I get you to drink?’ they look around to see what everyone else is drinking, or they default to wine or beer. So I always have a tray of cocktails as guests arrive, already poured,” she explains. In years past, Lavin has created her own take on a whiskey sour, as well as a mojito made with home-grown mint. Keeping things local, the Lavins serve craft beer from Atlantic Highlands-based Carton Brewery.

Guests eat, drink, play croquet and other yard games, and await the fireworks. “We distribute pillows and blankets so that, when it’s time for the show,” Lavin says, “everyone just looks up.” The party concludes with a birthday celebration, not just for the country, but for Lavin’s mother. “Her birthday is July 3, so the evening wraps with cake, candles, homemade vanilla ice cream and singing,” Lavin says. “She’ll be 92 this year. She’s a rock star.”

The Author
Lavin loves to share her knowledge of all things edible and flowering. An avid blogger, she has also written a cookbook, The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook (Voyager Press, 2012), a picture-packed ode to local produce and fresh ingredients. Lavin plans two similar books on New York City and the Garden State for the Homegrown series. Her latest book, Finishing Touches: The Art of Garnishing the Cocktail (Cider Mill Press, 2018), explores creative cocktail garnishes, including herbs, fruits and vegetables from her garden, with dozens of innovative recipes. “Ingredients matter,” she says. “There’s no doggie bag for a cocktail.”

Somehow, amidst the gardening, entertaining and writing, Lavin found time to work on the inside of the house, including recently renovating the master suite and finishing the walk-out basement—complete with a copper-topped bar. But this time of year, it’s all about living outside. Lavin’s gardens—and sharing them with family and friends—are her ultimate passion.

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