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The Fine Gardens of Jon Carloftis

A few blocks from Rupp Arena in the heart of downtown behind a stone wall sits the historic home of award-winning, landscape designer Jon Carloftis.

The 60-year-old Carloftis is a tenth-generation Kentuckian who grew up in Rockcastle County near the Daniel Boone National Forest. He recalls as a child that his family had no television but lots of books to discover and nature everywhere.

Carloftis says the outdoors became his classroom. “We played outside. And that's what we did. I learned nature. I love and to this day, when I come home, and people know this, I don't go inside. Now I've been working all day long. I don't go inside until it's dark till I have to. I mean, I'll come in and change clothes. I gotta be outside all the time.”

Carloftis took that love of the outdoors and built a career of designing and building garden landscapes at many of the most well-known bourbon distilleries, horse farms, and private homes in Central Kentucky—places like Makers Mark Distillery, Castle & Key Distillery, Ashbourne Farms, and Mt. Brilliant Farm.

“The people are what I'm interested in is just as well, because that's what makes each garden. I don't go in there and just go stamp, stamp, stamp. I try to figure out what they want. Sometimes they don't know what they want, but I can figure it out. I can talk to him; I can figure out exactly how to make them happy.”

Carloftis calls himself a country boy, but his breakthrough in landscape design started in New York City.

Carloftis had graduated from the University of Kentucky and spent the summer of 1988 visiting Manhattan. That visit turned into 26 years. Carloftis started designing and installing rooftop gardens in Manhattan. It was a learning experience beginning with his first client.

“I took the elevator up. And I thought we would get out in the house, and then go up on the roof, when in fact, most of them they weren't that way. The penthouse was on the top, and then you had wraparound terraces all the way around. This one was huge. So, I will never forget, I learned a lot. Because I tried to learn a lot every day, you keep on learning, let's hope.”

He says his rooftop garden business spread by word of mouth, and over the years his customers included celebrities like Julianne Moore and Mike Meyers.

“So, Estee Lauder’s granddaughter, Jane, I did her amazing terrace at Park Avenue. It was a huge one. It was the building. The apartment was only a one-bedroom. So, it had huge terraces around it. And I did that. It was so beautiful. She's president of Clinique. And I was with her 15, 20 years.”

Carloftis estimates he created around a hundred rooftop gardens in New York City. At the same time, he had his eye on a dilapidated historic home called Botherum in downtown Lexington.

Built in 1851 on thirty acres, Botherum was the home of Madison C. Johnson, a friend of Abraham Lincoln and Henry Clay. The Greek and Gothic Revival home had fallen into disrepair and was boarded up when Carloftis bought it in 2012.

He had a lot of work to do. Down in the basement, a group of unwelcome guests had to be removed.

“I had to get rid of, had to pay to get rid of 16 raccoons that were living down in here, repointed all the walls, and then the ceiling was rotted.”

Carloftis turned the property into a showcase that has been featured in, to name a few, Southern Living, Martha Stewart Living, and Garden and Gun Magazine. Each wing of the home made of Kentucky limestone has several columns outside, and the roof is capped off with an eight-sided cupola where an American flag flies.

Carloftis enjoys the sunshine, and each room has windows that give visitors a view of the gardens outside.

The original wood floors made of ash, poplar, and heart pine have all been restored.

Carloftis filled Botherum with an eclectic collection of antiques and items from junk stores. But there’s nothing stuffy about the furnishings.

“I tried to make everything easy and comfortable just like this sofa. I bought this in a junk store in Columbus Ohio. I take things that some people would throw away or just let fall away like a house or a little building or outbuilding, and I turn them into something that can be enjoyed for generations.”

A spiral staircase leads to the basement that features a custom chestnut bar, a large billiards table, a guest bedroom, and a huge metal sign that advertises a church revival.

In addition to the main house, Carloftis transformed a 1980s garage into a three-story pool house with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a sitting area. Called the Carriage House, it’s available for vacation rental and also serves as a party area for charity events.

Outside a massive ginkgo tree that was a gift from Henry Clay gives visitors shade and a large porch swing to enjoy relaxing moments.

Carloftis created gardens throughout the property with fountains, rock paths, bench seats, and Kentucky-native plants. Asked his advice for people who don’t have a large budget and want to start improving their home’s landscape design, Carloftis recommends working on one small area at a time and using perennials.

“Like I'm getting ready to split dailies, hostas, all kinds of perennials coming up soon here in the next few weeks. And if I can take one this big, split it in half, each of those halves will be that size. So, it's like you know the fishes and the loaves. You can make a big garden by using good perennials and split them up each year. And you have to keep on going. And again, perennials are plants that come back.”

To show some of his finest landscape and garden work a new book is available now called Jon Carloftis Fine Gardens. He highlights various horse farms, distilleries, and private estates with before and after pictures along with pictures of the owners.

“This is my fourth one. I did before and afters because I want people to see what you start with. I just wanted to share the beauty of Kentucky. These are all Kentucky gardens, ranging from big farms down to small little half acre, or less gardens, urban gardens. There are just vegetable gardens, all kinds, but it shows, it tells you the story about each.”

As for his home at Botherum, Carloftis says it will be around long after he’s gone, and he relishes that legacy of beauty.

“When I'm gone this place is going to be here because I do things right and it has been fixed. It's here. It's here for a while. So, you give it a lot of love. Pure love and it gives it right back to me this place. I'm just in love with it. I just love it.”

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Sam is a veteran broadcast journalist who is best known for his 34-year career as a News Anchor at WKYT-TV in Lexington. Sam retired from the CBS affiliate in 2021.
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