How to Have an Eco-Fabulous Wedding

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Fresh flowers, direct from the garden, add seasonal color to the cake.
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Simple food such as bread and cheese adds a sense of bounty to the wedding-day feast.
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Collecting money for a charitable cause adds meaning to your wedding day and helps build community.
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Tomato and mozzarella salad is a convenient menu item.
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Have activities such as croquet or horseshoes available for young and old alike.
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Olives are elegant and require no preparation.
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Serving food that can be enjoyed at room temperature is easy and time-efficient.
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Give small jars of local honey to your guests as party favors.
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Take advantage of fresh produce from your garden and local farmer’s markets.
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Natural beeswax candles are healthy and beautiful.

This spring, when Chicago interior designer Nicky Olesky and her fiancé, Chris Morris, take the vow to love, honor, and cherish, they’re doing it with a ceremony that celebrates both their union and the earth. Like many couples today, they want their wedding day to reflect their environmentally conscious lifestyle. “Once you learn to conserve and be eco-conscious, that attitude becomes part of your life, affecting everything,” Olesky says. “So, for us, there was no question that we would plan an ecologically friendly event.”

Creating a simple wedding expresses who you are as a couple, including your concern for the planet. And by hosting the ceremony and celebration at your own or your parents’ home, you’re putting your personal stamp on the event and expressing how much you value your community of friends, family, and neighbors. “A wedding is always more natural in a setting where you have a heartfelt connection,” says Lyle Davis, owner of Pastures of Plenty organic farm and Big Bang Catering in Longmont, Colorado. “That’s why a home wedding is so special.”

Davis speaks from experience–he and his wife, Sylvia Tawse, married four years ago in their remodeled farmhouse. “Because sharing food is so important to us, we asked our close friends to prepare a different part of an eight-course meal as their gift to us,” says Tawse. “Lyle and I made the soup, which we mixed together–a symbolic act that we thought was appropriate for the occasion.” Davis and Tawse now rent the farm for catered parties and weddings set amidst fields of colorful flowers at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. But even if your own yard isn’t so vast, you can still buy fresh food and flowers from the local farmer’s market and serve seasonal produce. This type of celebration can also save the costs of hall or restaurant rental and minimize the amount spent on decorations.

Your own backyard

A simple celebration at home is especially attractive to couples who’d rather not spend about $16,000 (the current average) for their big event, according to Carol Reed-Jones, author of Green Weddings That Don’t Cost the Earth (Paper Crane Press, 1996). “It’s not about being stingy or feeding your guests crackers and peanut butter,” she says. “It’s about having a celebration that’s meaningful for you.”

A backyard wedding offers many practical advantages as well. The flowers, trees, and landscaping in your backyard eliminate the need for wasteful streamers or balloons. The house remains a backup option in case of rain, and your kitchen is readily accessible. If you hold both the ceremony and the reception at home, you’ll cut transportation costs and conserve gasoline that guests would otherwise burn when driving from venue to venue.

The challenge of a backyard wedding is that you must be considerate of the neighbors. Keep music volume at a reasonable level and plan to end the festivities by 10 p.m. And rather than clog surrounding streets with parked cars, encourage guests to carpool or arrange for a van to pick them up. Davis and Tawse rent a British-style double-decker bus to transport guests to weddings at their farm; in addition to economizing on gas and parking, the service eliminates the danger of guests driving after imbibing.

Though your backyard wedding may be informal and modest in scale, don’t forget a few key details. Rent a tent for protection from the sun or drizzle, and let your guests know if they need to wear casual shoes to navigate grassy or rocky areas. Plan ahead for volleyball, croquet, or other yard games to entertain youngsters, and hire a babysitter to look after the little ones so parents can enjoy the party.

Even though geography often separates people, you can still bestow a sense of community on your marriage.

Creating community

There was a time when entire villages or extended families participated in preparing for the nuptials. Today, even though geography often separates people, you can still bestow a sense of community on your marriage. This is especially important with an eco-wedding, because your pledge to be environmentally responsible is a way of broadening your commitment to your spouse and the global community.

“Think about your friends’ and family members’ talents and figure out how you can use them as part of the fabric of your wedding,” suggests Tawse. “For instance, my father made the chuppah [a wedding canopy] for my sister and her husband. For the project, Dad read about the history and symbolism of the chuppah, so he learned about his son-in-law’s Jewish faith in the process.”

Other such labors of love can deepen your experience–perhaps a friend or family member can sew the dress, bake the cake, or even organize a sewing circle to make a wedding quilt. If you’re preparing your own wedding feast, consider inviting a few people to arrive several days in advance to help cook.

A potluck meal for the reception can be another way to emphasize community. The wedding hosts should provide drinks and one or two main-dish selections, then invite local guests to bring special side dishes. Ask a friend or relative to organize the potluck by food categories so you won’t have to worry about getting twenty bowls of macaroni salad. The result will be a banquet of sumptuous and creative foods prepared with love.

The wedding ritual of gift giving can also highlight communal connections. For instance, you can de-emphasize material objects–and avoid receiving duplicate espresso machines–by requesting gifts of services from family and friends. Depending on where their talents and your needs lie, you might receive pledges for yard or garden work, tax help, appliance repair, interior decorating, house-sitting, window cleaning, or picture framing.

Buy locally

As you budget for your wedding, keep in mind that by spending your money locally, you can choose socially and environmentally responsible vendors. “Buy food and flowers from local organic farmers, support environmentally friendly dry cleaners, and serve shade-grown coffee purchased from a fair-exchange company,” Reed-Jones advises. You’ll have the satisfaction of bolstering the local economy, and you’ll get more personalized attention.

“You may be able to visit the fields of a local organic flower grower to choose what you like,” Reed-Jones points out. “When you buy local flowers in season, you’re not wasting fuel by flying in tulips from Holland or anthurium from Hawaii.” Finding local flowers is especially key when you consider that 70 percent of the flowers sold in the United States are imported, according to the USDA. In addition to being sprayed with pesticides and herbicides as they grow, most of these cut flowers are sprayed with chemicals to keep them fresh while they are transported.

Working with local companies can give your wedding unique character. Instead of hiring a traditional caterer, Tawse suggests, ask your favorite pizzeria to bake special pizzas. A local brewpub might be amenable to bottling a limited edition of a wedding ale. “My sister bought local honey that she poured into small jars and gave as wedding favors along with handwritten notes about the sweetness of life,” Tawse says.

Giving back to the community

Reaching out to others can make your wedding more heartfelt. Some couples plant a tree as their first married act to symbolize their mutual respect for the earth. Reed-Jones knows a couple who passed a hat and invited guests to contribute to a charity during the ceremony. Other ideas include donating leftover food to a homeless shelter or food bank, or sending guests home with leftover portions in thanks for their help. People at a hospital or a senior center might enjoy your flower arrangements. If you want a gift registry that’s more significant than china patterns, consider joining the I Do Foundation, which helps couples share the wealth with nonprofit organizations. When you register with the group’s partner companies such as Nordstrom, Mikasa, Linens & Things, or Carlson Wagonlit Travel, up to 10 percent of every purchase will be donated to your selected cause. Check for information about associated charities.

Whatever you do, make sure your celebration is a unique expression of your shared values. For Nicky Olesky and her fiancé, who are both of Irish heritage, that means weaving an ancient Celtic tradition into the ceremony. “We’re having a handfasting ceremony in which our hands are bound together to symbolize our unity,” she says. “Our family and friends will gather around us in a circle. That circle creates good energy for us as we begin our marriage, and it gives us a sense of connectedness with all people and the earth.”