Southern Charm: Gardens, Design, Lifestyle, and a day at Keeneland with Jon Carloftis

An unseasonably brutal late winter had more than one Lexington gardener dreaming of Spring and itching for new inspiration for home and garden.

April at Keeneland will kick off the first of four Life and Style events programmed for this year by Lexington garden guru, Jon Carloftis.

Carloftis, now a world-renowned designer, grew up on the Rockcastle River and graduated from Laurel County High School. He still owns the famous family business, the Rockcastle River Trading Company, in Livingston, Kentucky. (The gardens he designed there have been featured in Southern Living and Garden and Gun Magazine, to name a few.)

He attended UK and majored in communications, but horticulture classes were where he found his passion. Although he’s frequently referred to as a landscape architect, he makes it clear that he is not, saying of his education, “I didn’t want to spend even 30 minutes of my life learning about parking lot drains.”

That didn’t deter him from transforming his passion into his profession, however.

In 1988, he moved to Manhattan and made business cards he handed out to doormen on the Upper East Side. While he wasn’t exactly an overnight success (it took a year or two), his hard work paid off and it wasn’t long before he made a name for himself as a garden guru for celebrities like Jerry and Linda Bruckheimer, Julianne Moore, Mike Myers, Edward Norton, and M. Night Shyamalan), getting his start transforming Manhattan rooftops into luscious landscapes. He’s since designed for everyone from Google to the White House.

He still enjoys describing himself as a gardener, and says “my ideas for the garden are doable, and applicable to most any type of garden space.”

His work is in evidence all over Lexington, including rooftop gardens at L.V. Harkness and Dudley’s downtown, and recently, the new exteriors for Apiary on Jefferson. He’s also done special projects at Lexington’s Arboretum, and for Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. He also designed the Kentucky Experience gardens at the World Equestrian Games. He’s given local lectures like “Growing an heirloom kitchen garden” and “Heirloom Perennials in your backyard.”

His books include First a Garden (now out of print); Beyond the Windowsill; and Beautiful Gardens of Kentucky.

He and partner Dale Fisher divide their time between location work for clients, their farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and historic Botherum, the famous Lexington home and gardens the two have ambitiously restored in Woodward Heights in west downtown.

Botherum is currently featured in the April issue of Southern Living.

The latest venture for Jon Carloftis Fine Gardens is a Life and Style series of four signature events, with the first one Gardens, Design, Lifestyle and Live Thoroughbred Racing at Keeneland on April 23.

Speakers will include Carloftis; Maker’s Mark COO, Rob Samuels; Keeneland president Bill Thomason; Patrick Howard (Keeneland’s floral designer); Janna and Ashley Pemberton (on patio gardening and other trends); Marshall Dirks (on great new plants for 2015); and Tim Wood (on color choices for flowering shrubs).

For an additional fee, registrants for the Keeneland program may also attend a preview cocktail party on Wednesday evening, April 22, at Historic Botherum. Food will be prepared by Ann Evans, Executive Director of the Governor’s Mansion (including her famous Country Ham and Biscuits with Clove Butter)..Signature Maker’s Mark cocktails will be served (courtesy of recipes from Canal House.)

A visit with Carloftis is always filled with common-sense advice and will leave ambitious gardeners inspired, but never intimidated.

The four Life and Style Events for this year begin with the Keeneland program on April 23; a Summer Solstice program on Saturday June 20 at the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion; a day at the Old Taylor Distillery in Frankfort on Saturday September 12; and a day with Canal House Cooking in Bardstown on Saturday October 3.

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This article also appears on page 12 of the April print edition of the Hamburg Journal.