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Outdoor Decor at the Bittersweet Garden

Outdoor Decor at the Bittersweet Garden

Written by Bill Kent | Photos by Callie Broaddus

Pass under the leafy bittersweet vine curling over the arbor of Bittersweet Garden on Main Street in The Plains and you’ll enter a maze of stone figures.

“We have very few plants,” says Nicole Siess, who opened the garden shop 27 years ago.

Instead of living things, the cottage’s front porch and yard are filled with statues of horses, foxes, eagles, cats, dogs, wizards, gargoyles, Regency damsels embracing handsome strangers, classical gods and goddesses, and even a garden gnome.

But not just any garden gnome. This one is of unpainted, molded concrete and so intensely detailed that it seems to stare into your soul.

“I imagine everything here as being in someone’s garden,” Siess continues. “If you think of a garden as a safe place that endures the seasons, the ups and downs of life, the bitterness and the sweet, then what you find here may be interesting.”

After she graduated from Virginia Tech and founded her own landscaping firm, LanDesigns LLC, in Gainesville, Siess and husband and business partner Mark discovered The Plains when they bought their children for brunch at The Rail Stop. They enjoyed the ambiance of the little village. 

At around the same time she learned “that you can’t solve all problems in a garden with plants. I began to search for other beautiful things that can go into a garden.” That search connected her with ironmongers, stone masons, and craftspeople throughout Hunt Country and in Europe, with several trips to the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show.

“After a while I wanted a place to put these beautiful things, so I could have them to use in my clients’ gardens, and so others could find them and put them in their gardens.” She thought The Plains would be an ideal place to have such a shop, and, in 1996, she and Mark bought the Main Street cottage and filled it with plant containers, lamps, fountains, and outdoor statuary. Largely by word of mouth, Bittersweet became a destination shop for those who want things in their gardens that they won’t see anywhere else.

Take flower pots, for example. “We have pots that, as far as I know, are not like any others,” Siess says. “We also have them in as many sizes as possible so you can get the right one for the plant.”

She also stocks “pot feet” — stone blocks (some shaped like feet!) to put under plant containers that lift them off the ground, improving drainage. 

Some of the pots are large enough to use as firepits. “Others are just…” she pauses, running her fingers over a vast Turkish copper kettle, “unusual. And I don’t know where else you would go to find an armillary.”

An armillary is a spherical sundial made of metal that, in addition to telling time and indicating solstices and equinoxes, has a stylized arrow that points to true north. A feature of classical gardens from ancient times through the Renaissance, it is typically mounted on a pedestal and, like statuary, can be used as an outdoor focal point that draws attention, or suggests an antiquarian mood.

The Bittersweet Garden has four, ranging in size from a soccer ball to a beach ball. The shop also stocks several varieties of pedestals because “they are very important to a detail [oriented] person like me,” Siess continues. “The armillary gets your attention, but the pedestal that it is mounted on connects it to the garden and the space around it. Part of the enjoyment of a garden comes from the many things that you don’t see immediately but can affect how you feel and what you discover as you explore.”

The Bittersweet Garden almost demands exploration. Among the things you may not see at first are cast lead turtle and salamander figurines, high-end garden tools, flower arranging supplies, steel watering cans, fishing flies (made by Siess’s son Christopher), aromatic soaps, gardening-themed greeting cards, skin oils, gardening books, indoor growing novelties like an avocado rooting glass (fill it with water, add the avocado pit, wait a few days and you have the beginnings of a plant), an exquisitely rustic handmade broom from California, and other items that “we absolutely love,” says Bittersweet’s manager John Gardner.

A graduate of the Savannah School of Design who created store interiors and retail displays for Marc Jacobs and Kate Spade, Gardner was visiting his family in Haymarket when his mother, a Bittersweet fan, told him that he must see the shop. Siess’s brother, architect Mark Alvarez, had previously run the shop.

Gardner “hit it off immediately” with Siess. He offered to make subtle changes in the arrangements of the items and learned quickly that some of the statues are HEAVY. “But I managed to get the horses and foxes up front. This is Hunt Country! Customers must see these things!”

Seeing is one thing. Bringing it home is another. Bittersweet does not ship any item over five pounds. It will deliver larger pieces and statues up to 15 miles from The Plains. For longer distances, customers must make their own arrangements.

After helping a customer wrestle a 250-pound figurine into the back of a Mini Cooper, Gardner decided to defer all heavy lifting to the forklift, and forklift operator, that Siess uses in her garden design work. 

Gardner also developed an appreciation for how selective Siess is. “As busy as Nicole is, she spends a lot of time thinking about everything that goes into the store. The level of quality and craftsmanship of every piece has to be very high. You will never see trendy here. You will never see throwaway.”

The spring and summer tend to be Bittersweet’s busy seasons. Gardeners, as well as those attending equestrian events, visit the store regularly. 

Siess credits the shop’s longevity to those loyal customers, as well as what she calls the enduring nature of what she sells. “Our best customers are those who love their gardens. A garden is made of many different elements, each reflecting its owner. It is a place to find peace and calmness. A garden is also work … stretching, sweating, spending, researching, lifting, measuring, weeding, watering, placing, planting, pruning, spraying, feeding, in general toiling, but the result is so satisfying. Hence, The Bittersweet Garden, with the emphasis on ‘sweet.’” ML

Published in the July 2023 issue of Middleburg Life.

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