Raised Right: Celebrity Garden Designer Jon Carloftis is proud Kentucky ambassador

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BY HEATHER C. WATSON

Jon Carloftis is in his truck.

If I lose you, I’ll call you back,” the acclaimed garden designer says, almost apologetically. He’s driving back to Lexington from New York City. With all the flight delays these days, he explains, driving is as quick as flying. And, it’s far easier to bring along a Labrador Retriever or two. Besides, “Me and Dale like to shop, and we like to stop along the way. It’s nice to have a pickup truck.”

“Dale” is Dale Fisher, his longtime life and business partner. Together, they have built Jon Carloftis Fine Gardens into a successful and diverse gardening enterprise. There’s the roster of celebrity clients (Julianne Moore, Mike Myers, Edward Norton, M. Night Shyamalan), for whom Carloftis has famously transformed Manhattan rooftops into lush, functional oases. Closer to home, there’s the rooftop garden he designed for Proof on Main at Louisville’s 21C, and others for  L.V. Harkness and Dudley’s in downtown Lexington. There are the kitchen garden collaborations with some of the nation’s most influential chefs. There are the gardens that Carloftis has designed for the White House and Google’s Manhattan offices. There are speaking engagements and a series of books. There’s even a new line of plant food. Carloftis and Fisher, it seems, are always up to something. One wonders, do they ever sleep?

Carloftis laughs off the question. He tells the story of a recent, typical New York workday, which started with work on a client’s garden. Next came a pitch to a  prospective client on the Upper East Side. As the day was wrapping up, “Linda Bruckheimer called. She and her husband Jerry — we’ve been working with them for seven years — they’re just the coolest people. They invited us to see a new play, The Trip to Bountiful, with Cicely Tyson and Vanessa Williams. Then we all went out to dinner.” He ticks off the day’s activities nonchalantly, as though watching a Broadway play with one of Hollywood’s most influential producers is an everyday occurrence. “I looked down at my watch and realized it was 1:38 in the morning. I was exhausted, but my motto is, ‘Live for the Moment.’”

Back in the truck, Carloftis and Fisher are living for the moment in a more low-key fashion. Their time is split between their Manhattan client base, their Pennsylvania farmhouse, and their Lexington home (historic Botherum), which means that their travels have become a well-established routine. The drive back to Kentucky involves lots of stops, as travel with dogs often does.  Lily, their beloved yellow Labrador, takes walks and play in streams along the way. There are also plenty of stops at favorite antique stores. Carloftis explains, “Some people like to hunt animals, and that’s fine. We hunt cool pieces instead.” Some of these cool pieces will be incorporated into clients’ gardens, while others will end up for sale at the Rockcastle River Trading Company, the store he runs on his family’s Livingston farm. He describes the antique Percussion Kentucky Rifle he just scored with the same enthusiasm that he applies to a night out with his famous friends. Carloftis comes across as a smart, creative, hardworking guy who’s equally at home in the country or the big city. His friendly, unassuming manner immediately sets you at ease. As they say in small towns across the South, he was raised right.

That raising came in the tiny town of Livingston, in Southern Rockcastle County, right along the ridge where Appalachia meets Central Kentucky. His parents, Carlos and Lucille, owned a restaurant, and later a theater. “Daddy’s family was from Pineville, and Mama’s was from Clay County,” he says. Those deep Appalachian roots provided the Carloftis kids with an appreciation for family and history. “There are just such great storytellers in Appalachia,” he recalls. “It’s all about the story and family. Everybody has crazy family members to talk about. It makes for an interesting conversation.”

Lucille’s lessons also left a lasting impression. To this day, Carloftis says, he owns female dogs, because that’s how he was raised: “Mama had six foot tall boxwood shrubs and she didn’t want boy dogs marking them.” Lucille still lives in the family farmhouse, but Carloftis does most of the landscaping there these days.

During his childhood in Livingston, Carloftis would make the hour-long trip to Lexington with his family several times a week. “Mama used to bring her cleaning to Chrisman’s, and we would shop at Stewart’s and Embry’s.” For the young Carloftis, like many kids who grew up in rural Kentucky, Lexington was already starting to feel like home.

He attended the University of Kentucky where, despite his passion for plants, he majored in communications. Classes under horticulturalist Sharon Bale, however,  ignited a special interest. Says Bale, “Jon was a student in my Annual and Perennial Flower Identification class.  He was actually interested in the class. When you have students that show an interest, ask questions, and are enthusiastic, it makes teaching so much more fun and definitely makes the teacher better. The fact that he is so good looking was just a bonus.”

That signature mixture of charm and hard work played to Carloftis’s advantage when, fresh out of college in 1988, he moved to New York City. He had business cards printed up that said “Jon Carloftis, Rooftop Garden Designer,” even though he’d never actually seen a rooftop garden. The gamble paid off, and he was soon designing for Manhattan’s elite.

A Carloftis garden contains many elements that are reminiscent of the designer’s country childhood. He often repurposes found items into unique displays, and his gardens feature a delightful mix of ornamental and edible plants. His signature touch is the incorporation of food into every design. Southern Living began their April 2013 profile of his L.V. Harkness rooftop design with, “lack of a yard is no excuse for not having an edible garden.”

As an emerging gardener in late-eighties New York, he often found himself having to sneak these elements into his work. Even if it was one small box in the midst of a huge display, though, he always used vegetables and herbs. “Wealthy clients would say ‘I don’t need that; I can always send my girl out to the fresh market,’” Carloftis laughs. “I would counter that with something small at first, like ‘you can always use mint for iced tea.’ Once clients got into it, they were sold.” Pretty soon, Jon was incorporating elements of a country garden into big city designs. On every trip back to Kentucky, he would pick up local elements like tobacco sticks for use in his gardens. “Clients love the juxtaposition of rustic and modern,” he says thoughtfully. With that simple sentence, he’s described both his design philosophy and  his own demeanor.

Carloftis’s unassuming nature also shows through in all of his work. He approaches a new design with no preconceived notions. Rather, he says, he lets his clients tell him what they want and need. He approaches a new garden with the same attitude he applies to meeting new people:  “Everybody has a story. Most people are interesting; you just have to pull their personality out.”

The key to working with clients, Carloftis says, is to listen to their needs. “When I start to design a garden, I listen to them and notice how they’re using their space. I look at the interior of their home, how they live, their style, and the colors they use.” He also looks to a home’s design for inspiration. “The architect’s already done the work, I’m just dancing with it,” he proclaims. His strategy is to showcase great things about a home. “Every house has a better view,” he notes. “There’s one you want to exalt and one you want to hide. I deal with the house’s problems first, then I start looking at style.” It’s a strategy that keeps clients coming back for more. One family has enlisted Carloftis’s services for twenty-one years, with new plants rotating into their garden every two weeks.

These days, Carloftis and Fisher have the flexibility to set their own schedule. They try to spend most of their time in Lexington, because “it just feels like home.” Their purchase last year of Botherum, an eclectic 160 year-old Woodward Heights mansion in west downtown, was met with much fanfare among the preservation set. Carloftis is clearly delighted as he talks about the new face of downtown Lexington: “When I left Lexington in 1988, there was no place to go out. Now, there are so many great new restaurants.” He just can’t get enough of Nick Ryan’s, he says, and the red beans and rice with bacon from Stella’s are “pure comfort food. I place a to-go order two or three times a week; I’m always too busy working to go sit down at the counter.”

Carloftis loves showing off the Bluegrass State’s unique treasures, and has become a de facto tourism ambassador among his friends. In his earliest days in New York, he found that none of his friends knew about bourbon. “What is this brown stuff? they’d say,” he jokes. So he began throwing Derby parties to introduce them to Kentucky’s native spirit. Over the years, these parties became an annual midsummer bourbon tasting party. For a recent birthday party he threw for Fisher, he invited people from across the country to Lexington. “There were people from Chicago, New York — all over really. Most had only been to Kentucky for Derby, if at all.” Carloftis relished the opportunity to show Lexington off. The party was held at the L.V. Harkness rooftop garden he designed. “It was great to see our guests change their attitudes about Kentucky. They went crazy for Wine + Market,” he says proudly.

He and Dale opened Botherum for guests at the LexArts 2013 campaign finale, and later in May opened the grounds and carriage house to the public for the Open Gates to Bluegrass Living garden tour, sponsored by the Lexington Council of Garden Clubs.

His commitment to improving the Commonwealth’s image extends far beyond throwing a good party. Carloftis has donated his time and talents to many local institutions, including Ashland, the Henry Clay Museum, and the UK Art Museum. Not surprisingly, the Ashland garden was meticulously researched for historical authenticity. Says Tom Jordan, the executive director of the museum: “A few years ago, Jon developed a seasonal demonstration garden, which featured heirloom seeds and was bordered by a split rail fence. It represented the type of kitchen garden Henry Clay’s wife Lucretia had during her years at Ashland in the early 1800s. Jon delighted our guests with lectures about historic kitchen gardens and using heirloom vegetable seeds in contemporary gardens.” (Click to read the 2004 Ace archive.)

Last year, Carloftis partnered with Country Living magazine on their Ultimate Kitchen Garden project. Carloftis planned a garden around the plant requests of chefs and slow-food pioneers like Rick Bayless and Alice Waters. Carloftis requested that the garden be located at his alma mater and enlisted his friend and mentor Sharon Bale. Says Bale,I’ll never forget the phone call when he asked if I wanted to work with him and Country Living at the UK Arboretum. It was so easy to say yes. The stories surrounding that little project could be a book.”

The Country Living garden’s location was no accident, Carloftis notes. “Our farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsyvania is just a stone’s throw from New York City. It would have been a lot easier for a magazine to shoot photos in our backyard.” Instead, he insisted on bringing the garden to Kentucky. “I wanted to promote a favorable outlook on Kentuckians.”

Doing good, changing opinions, and promoting good habits are topics that keep popping up in the conversation. When Carloftis was called to work on the Edible Schoolyard project with Alice Waters, he relished the opportunity to teach children better eating habits. “I knew if you introduce it at an early age, it would change them, same as it [growing up on a farm] changed me.” It’s his duty, he believes, to give people people ideas, hope, and inspiration through through his gardens. He challenges clients to do things they’re afraid to try: “It would be easy to give them what they want and spend the rest of the time on an exotic island.” With his earnest beliefs and infectious positivity, it seems Carloftis could add motivational speaking to his list of skills. “I really believe we’re just getting so much smarter,” he declares.

As with most conversations between Southerners, the conversation talk drifts back to dogs.  “They bring you back to real life,” he says. People can be acting, like the Real Housewives of New Jersey, thinking they’re so high and mighty, and dogs bring them back to center.” It’s a remarkably Zen-like approach to life. Even his meticulously conceived gardens aren’t as important as the animals he loves: “Let them pee on the boxwood,” he proclaims. “It’s just plants!”

Carloftis expresses concern for Lily the Lab; she’s just not been herself since her sister Cate passed away a few weeks ago. She’s starting to come around,” he says hopefully.

After an hour spent discussing life, gardens, and dogs, the interview draws to a close. “You’ll have to come by and see the house sometime,” Carloftis says graciously. There’s little doubt that he means it.

Jon and Dale invite friends to join them Saturday, June 22, 2013 for Ashland’s annual summer Lawn Party on the back lawn of the Henry Clay Estate with cocktails, live jazz by Ozone, silent auction, tours of the Mansion, dinner by Dupree Catering. Reservations and ticket prices, 859.266.8581.

This article appears on page 6 of the June 13, 2013 print edition of Ace.

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