An interview with Kentucky native and world-renowned ‘gardener’ Jon Carloftis
It is a funny thing to watch a man weed for an hour and leave his garden transformed.
Jon Carloftis, equally willing to quote Mark Twain and his mama, turned a platitude into an original sounding manifesto for living the good life with his heartfelt sincerity, his quick wit and a slight southern drawl as we spoke this past Sunday in the kitchen garden he built at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate.
“Do you mind if I weed?” he politely asked as he spun his tale and charmed me into believing I could toss it all away to dig in the dirt.
Carloftis’ story starts as your most basic hometown-boy-makes-it-in-the-big-city tale. He grew up on a farm in Rockcastle County and graduated from nearby Laurel County High School. From there he went on to UK where he earned a degree in communications.
He knew immediately that he would be miserable sitting behind a desk so he went back to school to study plants, because he says, “that’s what I love—plants.” He says people often call him a Landscape Architect but he wants to be clear that he isn’t. He never took a single class on the subject because, “I didn’t want to spend even 30 minutes of my life learning about parking lot drains.”
The summer he finished school he moved to New York where he made up cards that he took to the doormen of large apartment buildings on the Upper East Side because, as he said, “My mama didn’t raise no fool and that’s where the rich people lived.”
His first client let him design a single container—she loved it, by the end of the summer he had designed her whole terrace and she had introduced him to several her friends and his career took off.
He attributes his success to luck and “working like a dog.” But he also hopes he gains and keeps clients because, “I try to be a pleasure to work with.”
His career continued to take off for the next dozen years. His work was featured in Country Home, House Beautiful, Interior, the New York Times, the Style Channel, the Home and Garden Channel and ABC’s Good Morning America. He had become so popular that his business was expanding exponentially and he was asked to do a gardening show for the Discovery Channel.
The story turns inspirational (or perhaps appalling if you are Donald Trump) as Carloftis describes the good life he found beyond the big time.
“The Discovery Channel called me. I was so excited. This is a chance,” he thought, “Hollywood!” He went to California to film the show but when he got there he found that all the people who were working on the garden with him were actors, not gardeners. Which was the first strike against the show.
And then the “second strike was everyone saying, as they bring the food cart, ‘I’m macro,’ and I’m thinkin’ ‘I can’t stand this place, I’m just so happy to have someone bring me something to eat.’”
Ultimately he did not do the show and says he realized that he would not have been gardening at all but rather standing around in a studio all day complaining about the food. He says, “I didn’t want to be stuck on a set with nothing to do with gardening. I can just get in my pick-up truck and drive on.” So he did.
Around the same time he began to look at options for managing his booming business, he says, “I could have driven around all day and been inside in the air-conditioning drawing things up, but I like planting—weeding is good for you.”
When he thought about what it was that he really enjoyed doing, “planting things and making things pretty” he realized that he might not be famous and he might not be rich or as he puts it, “who needs all that money; we’re all going to die anyway.”
He says now, “You gotta’ find out what makes you happy.”
But admits he is glad he has tried other things, “sometimes you gotta’ go through seven marriages to find that truck driver you love.”
He went back to his core 40 clients and to focusing on the two things he likes the most: people and plants. He describes some of his clients for whom he has worked since he started his business, “Mrs. Hoffman likes jewel tones so I try to find new flowers [in those colors] for her. Mrs. Biggs has nine terraces—she loves baby blues and soft yellows. That’s interesting to me.”
He smiles (he smiles a lot) as he says, “I prefer to be called a gardener because that’s what I like to do. Even if I won the lottery I would do what I do.” And he says, “There is something about planting—it makes you feel good…what you put into it comes back to you.”
He is at Ashland today weeding in the kitchen garden he donated and built in the spirit of a garden that might have been grown at Ashland in Henry Clay’s time with heirloom vegetables and flowers.
Anne Hagen-Michel, director of Ashland, was planning the annual summer event at Ashland and knew the event needed a “breath of new life.”
She contacted Carloftis to ask him to speak at the event, he said, “I’ll do you one better” and he did.
He and an assistant planted the garden and built the split rail fence around it. Hagen-Michel says working with Carloftis has “been nothing but good vibrations,” Which is pretty much what everyone who comes in contact with Carloftis says. As we talked, a mutual friend wandered up, and said, “Jon’s a nice fella.”
When asked what motivated him to build the garden at Ashland he said, “It’s an excuse to come home.” And Country Garden will do a photo shoot and story in July on the garden in its historic homes issue.
One suspects that Carlofitis’ passion for heirloom vegetables and flowers may have also played a part. He leans in close, possibly to be sure I hear him, or possibly because he knows what he’s saying might hit a little too close to home with some of his clients and says, “I like technology, thanks to Propecia I have a full head of hair, but all this innovated food is like plastic surgery, it’s a slippery slope.”
Once we start growing food for looks rather than for the way it tastes we begin to value looks over substance, much like the plastic surgery addict. He continues, “It may look beautiful, but something is missing. The cucumbers are huge but they taste like cardboard. Heirloom vegetables may get a little mold but they have good flavor.”
Carloftis’ speaking agent has a bio that mentions his “movie-star good looks,” and it’s true he’s got looks to spare, but talking to him proves that he really does realize that is isn’t all about good looks and—in the spirit of the homilies Carloftis makes sound so charming and original—it’s what’s inside that counts. n
Jon Carloftis will give garden lectures at Ashland this weekend. Friday, June 18, 2004 at 3pm is ‘Growing an Heirloom Kitchen Garden,’ and Saturday June 19 at 10:30am, ‘Heirloom Perennials in Your Backyard.’ For tickets, reservations or info, call 859.266-8581. Country Garden will feature Ashland’s kitchen garden in its historic homes issue.