Renowned Kentucky landscape designer Jon Carloftis shares his green thumb wisdom
By Laura Ross
Photos by The Scout Guide Lexington
“It’s like a banana split,” laughed Jon Carloftis, a nationally sought-after garden designer, looking at his handiwork on a historical home in Lexington, Kentucky. “It’s just delicious looking and makes you want to move right in.”
He should know. As a child growing up in the area, Carloftis and his mother would often drive up and down Richmond Road and admire the large, historical homes dotting the road. They’d take turns picking out their favorite house, and Carloftis always selected the same large, two-story Colonial mansion built in the 1920s. Little did he know, decades later he’d be tapped to help with a major renovation of that home.
“I was so excited the first time I pulled into the driveway,” he remembered. “I exclaimed, ‘This is MY house!’”
The current owners had entrusted Louisville architect Tim Winters with renovating the home to make it more comfortable for modern living. They hired Carloftis to “build” off the architectural elements to create a showstopping garden design. He was more than willing to dive into the project.
“Everyone has a house or two they’ve always admired,” said Carloftis. “There’s just something about a house that speaks to you. This house spoke to me. It’s so classic and elegant and I was thrilled to be back in Kentucky, working on this house I’ve dreamed of since my childhood.”
Carloftis’ family has deep Kentucky roots, tracing their family tree back more than 200 years through Clay County and along the Rockcastle River. His parents’ large expanse of land inspired his love of nature, and after studying business at the University of Kentucky, Carloftis decided to take additional courses in agriculture.
In 1988, he and a friend headed to adventures in the Big Apple. An entrepreneur at heart, he printed out business cards that read, “Jon Carloftis, Rooftop Garden Designer” and walked up and down New York’s famed streets, handing the cards out to doormen and elevator operators. “I’d tell them to pass it along to whoever lived in the penthouse,” he said.
His strategy worked. A client called, and the fledgling designer had his first major job. “It must have worked,” he said, “I stayed there for the next 26 years and built rooftop gardens for a large portfolio of clients.”
Carloftis became New York City’s premier rooftop garden designer to the stars. Among his clients were actors Julianne Moore, Mike Myers, Edward Norton and many more. He became a favorite designer for many in the art world, as well.
“I have a love for plants and an eye for what works,” he explained. “To me, the garden is an accessory and I work off the architecture. I learned that in New York City. Every room you look down onto from a penthouse has to have a visual connection.”
Carloftis doesn’t walk in with a pre-determined plan. Each garden is unique. “I start by looking inside the house,” he said. “I look at the colors, the furniture, the art. I listen to the client’s story. I’m designing for their personality, not mine. It’s a pleasure to figure out what people like. I’m creating a living thing that grows for years to come. It has to have true meaning for them.”
To escape New York’s brutal winters, Carloftis would return home to Kentucky, and a marginally more favorable climate, from December through March. On a trip home in 2012, he spotted the home of his dreams for sale in Lexington. He immediately purchased the historic Botherum, which had fallen into serious disrepair, and began a year-long renovation of the home.
“I’m home and I don’t want to leave,” mused Carloftis. “I’ve traveled so much that I just don’t want to leave my house anymore.” Carloftis moved his garden design business back to Kentucky and now keeps a busy and booked schedule between clients in Lexington, Louisville and all points in between.
A favorite Kentucky project remains the Richmond Road classical home that floated in his childhood memory. “There just needs to be more houses like this one, it’s so classic and elegant,” said Carloftis. He worked with the homeowners and architect Tim Winters to bring the classic jewel into a showstopper for today. “If we are going to save these beautiful homes, we need to make them livable for today’s families,” added Carloftis. While Winters updated the interior and added a new back addition, Carloftis tackled the 1.5-acre yard, which was overgrown and begging for new life.
The owner asked for a greenhouse, and Carloftis sprang into action. “I’m always thinking about what you’re looking at,” he said. “If something is at the end of the property, you can enjoy it visually from the house even in bad weather. We got the greenhouse from a company in England called Hartley Botanic Greenhouse who sent a person to assemble it. The homeowner is an active gardener and she and her daughters grow vegetables, plant seedlings and grow flowers.”
“On the inside, we did built-in cabinets with granite and quartz tops and we added a pea gravel floor for water to drain,” he continued. “I love the bullseye mirrors that are so attractive. I like mixing things up. If everything is so stylized and fine, it’s too much. So I mixed simple teak wood tables with fancy elements like the mirrors and added a large chandelier inside, just because it was so pretty. We included tables and areas where they can have dinner parties. The greenhouse functions as another room for the home. At night, when the chandelier is lit, the greenhouse just glows. It looks like a jewel box.”
Outside, he added “rooms” built of boxwoods hedges, and added hydrangeas, sunflowers and a multitude of perfectly placed flowers and shrubs to create a garden walk that captures the eye at every glance. Bluestone paths make it easy to walk from different spots. Obelisks are both decorative and functional, growing tomatoes and other vines, and an old pool house was renovated to be an office with a view for the homeowner. “It’s not a bad morning commute to work,” he quipped.
“I want everything to look like a photo and that has everything to do with long views,” said Carloftis. “What I love looking at is how does this work? Because I’m an entertainer, I know what it’s like to carry the cooler of wine to the place. I look at the function of it and then I make it pretty.”
“If you want to throw a party and dinner, do it in the garden, then get your leaf blower and blow it out to clean up,” he smiled. “My gardens are that space that’s unique, and people will go have cocktails and dinner there and they’ll never forget that memory that it was in a greenhouse or garden.”
“In my gardens, I know every leaf that drops,” said Carloftis. “Each garden is so personal to me. My job is to find the soul of a place and I hope that happens every time.”
Within all the tumult of 2020, people sat at home and looked at their yards and realized they needed change. Garden designer Jon Carloftis has some easy tips on sprucing up your garden oasis to find your place of Zen as spring finally blossoms.
– Make it easy, with essentials – Choose simple plants and flowers that make you happy. Ask yourself, what’s your favorite flower from childhood? What plant would look best on a patio?
– Bring the indoors outside – What is your style? Is it modern, classic or a hodgepodge? Purchase planters, furniture and more to reflect the elements you love inside your home.
– How will you live in your space? – Is it a retreat, a play area or an entertaining spot?
– What makes you happy? – What are your favorite colors? Love an old-fashioned shrub that was in your grandmother’s yard? Plant it! Your garden replicates your personality. Don’t rely on what’s trendy.
– Most importantly – Have fun with it and enjoy your garden!
Greenhouse by Hartley Botanic Greenhouse, hartley-botanic.com.