Jon Carloftis: Kentucky's Home Grown Garden Guru
Jon Carloftis designs rooftop gardens in New York City and offers basic advice to create beautiful gardens and containers, as he has done here at his Livingston homestead and the Rockcastle River Trading Company
Livingston native Jon Carloftis is an honest-to-goodness gardening celebrity. He’s designed rooftop gardens for famous New York City clients like actress Julianne Moore, actor Edward Norton, and director M. Night Shyamalan. He’s made appearances on HGTV, Good Morning America, and Martha Stewart Living, and his gardens have graced the pages of dozens of national magazines, from Better Homes and Gardens and Metropolitan Home to Country Gardens and House Beautiful.
A regular top-draw on the national garden lecture circuit and author of a gardening book called First a Garden, Carloftis, 41, has made a career of knowing just what to do to make any garden look fabulous.
That’s why it was a bit of a surprise, when we talked last November, just a week before a holiday open house at his family’s Livingston garden store, the Rockcastle River Trading Company, to hear him so readily admit that his garden at home is “a wreck”—due largely to last summer’s drought.
With that admission, one thing is clear: fame has not gone to this gardener’s head. And he doesn’t intend for it to. While Carloftis, who splits his time between Livingston and his home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, admits he’s made a name for himself designing gardens for “some of the wealthiest people in New York,” he doesn’t consider that the hallmark of his career. What really inspires him is “coming up with gardening ideas that everyone can do, not just the ultra-ultra privileged,” he says. And he thanks his “good ole Kentucky background”—which he promotes every chance he can—for that.
Ask anyone who knows him, and they’ll tell you: Jon Carloftis is every bit the down-to-earth Kentucky boy he attests to being.
“Jon is just so talented, but he’s so amazingly humble about it,” says Dinah Taylor, wife of James H. Taylor, president of Williamsburg’s University of the Cumberlands. Carloftis designed and installed the Carloftis Garden on the Cumberland campus as a tribute to his late father as well as his mother and older siblings, who are alumni. “For someone so young to be so committed to giving back to his home state like he is, is really inspiring,” she says. Despite his hectic schedule, Carloftis makes time to speak regularly at Kentucky garden club events, and he has also donated his talents to gardens at the University of Kentucky Arboretum and to Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate.
For Carloftis, giving back to Kentucky is a way to pay tribute to his family and the source of his lifelong love of nature: growing up along the banks of the Rockcastle River. There, his parents, Carlo and Lucille Carloftis, ran Fort Sequoyah, a summer theater and tourist attraction in operation from 1955 through the late 1980s.
“It was just an incredible life. Okay, so we were so far out in the country, we didn’t have TV. But who needed it?” he says. Regular walks with his dad two miles through the woods to check the family’s freshwater spring were his early textbooks into the beauty of all types of plants and trees.
And it’s a foundation that’s served him well. His career jump-started in 1988 when, fresh out of classes at the University of Kentucky, he went to New York and handed out business cards that said “Jon Carloftis, Rooftop Garden Designer”—despite the fact that he’d never yet stepped foot in one. All it took was one client to give him a chance, and he’s had as much business as he can handle —strictly through word-of-mouth referrals—ever since.
Most days at work, Carloftis is out there like any gardener, getting his hands dirty, fighting weeds and drought and bugs and all the other challenges of getting a garden just so—whether that’s in his own yard or on a client’s New York rooftop. But that doesn’t change the fact that Carloftis is also a man with an undeniable knack for design. Which means that, while his gardens sometimes get to be a wreck just like everyone else’s, he also knows—unlike some of us—exactly what to do about it.
“You know what I’m going to do?” he asks, referring to how he plans to handle that conundrum everyone fears: there’s company on the way with a mess to hide.
Then comes his simple, spot-on solution: “I’m going to make a few containers. Where you park the car. Then I’m going to do one coming up the walkway, and I’m going to do some at the front door on either side. That’s what people will remember. It’s a 1-2-3-step plan that takes your eye and pulls you along. And so in the long run, it’s a very inexpensive way of doing it. You can save money. You don’t have to do the whole yard, you can just let it go green.”
It’s ideas like these—using containers to create easy, manageable, container-based gardens that can change with the seasons—that he loves to share with anyone who will listen. “My message is very democratic,” he says. “I want everybody to be able to take my tips and do them. And you can, no matter what type of budget you have.”
Carloftis says he finds inspiration for new garden design ideas everywhere—even in how the furniture of an interior room may be arranged. Still, there is one special place that’s his touchstone. “It’s called the Rockcastle River,” he says. “I can go there, and really get inspired real quick.”
And that inspiration, in turn, takes root in a garden. “I always tell people, when you have a career where you are beautifying the world, you’re doing well,” he says.
WHERE TO FIND JON CARLOFTIS
Find out more about Jon Carloftis, including information about how to order signed copies of his book, First a Garden, as well as directions to his family’s store in Livingston, the Rockcastle River Trading Company, on his Web site at www.joncarloftis.com.
On April 1, the Rockcastle River Trading Company will host its spring opening day open house. Food, entertainment, and garden demonstrations will be included in the day’s activities. The store is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., April 1 through December 31; it is closed on Sundays. For more information, call (606) 843-0854.
Carloftis will be selling and signing First a Garden at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest in Bowling Green, April 7-8 (go online to www.sokybookfest.org for more information).
And watch for Jon Carloftis’ articles in several upcoming national magazines, including the March issue of Martha Stewart Living, the spring issues of Garden Rooms, Water Gardens, and Vegetable Gardening Made Easy, as well as the summer issue of Country Gardens, which will include a feature story on the Rockcastle River Trading Company.
For more information about scheduling Carloftis as a speaker for group events, call Mike McKinney, with McKinney Associates, at (800) 955-4746.
CONTAINERS ARE KEY
While they’re a necessity in rooftop gardening, containers can be equally at home in a garden with lots of land. “Containers add so much more to a garden, such a different element,” Carloftis says. “They add structure and dimension. And in many ways, containers make it so much easier. You can have terrible soil conditions, but if you’re using containers, you can just buy the best Miracle-Gro brand of soil. Also, you can move them around, so you can change things up and keep it fresh.”
Plus, containers are a great way for gardeners with limited time to focus their energies on a few displays where visitors will most notice them—like near the driveway or front door—while leaving the rest of the yard more natural.
For more tips on container gardening, see the July 1999 At Home in the Garden column; go to www.KentuckyLiving.com
, type “little gardens” in the article search box, and click “Go.”
The key to designing a great container garden is not being afraid to try new things. Don’t just stop with a few geraniums. “Put it all in there,” says Carloftis, for whom unique container displays are a signature garden design element.
“Have you ever seen pots, and even though they’re in full bloom, something just doesn’t work? You can have two flowers that are very similar, and it really doesn’t work. You have to have contrast,” Carloftis says. “It’s about textures. It’s about combining. I like taking ordinary plants and doing extraordinary things with them.”
Though Carloftis likes to mix up his combinations, each of his containers typically includes four basic elements: an evergreen, a flower, a grass or an ivy, and branches.
Carloftis offers this guide:
- First, select a synthetic pot—such as concrete, fiberglass, or plastic—that is weatherproof, so that the arrangement can stay outdoors throughout the winter.Line the bottom of the pot with a layer of gravel, Styrofoam pellets, or crushed aluminum cans for drainage, and fill it with a good-quality soil, such as Miracle-Gro with silicone, which aids in water retention.
- Next, begin by placing a tall plant in the middle, flanking it on either side with something shorter, such as a Bengal Tiger canna flanked by lilies.
- Finally, add an ivy or some grasses, which will creep over the edge of the pot and soften the edges, like a sweet potato vine.
Another advantage of container gardening is the ease with which containers can be adapted from season to season to ensure year-round color, adds Carloftis.
“In the spring you can buy bulbs that are already started from a greenhouse. And you can put in daffodils, tulips, things that creep over, ivies and grasses. When that’s finished blooming, then you can do your annuals.
“Later, when the frost comes, then you can do fall blooming things. You can also add pumpkins and gourds with beautiful mums and cyclamens.
“And for the winter months, you can keep those pots there and put in an evergreen, or leave the evergreen in if that’s been your base. Then I add pine boughs, or holly sprigs, or winterberry, or southern magnolia branches. And I spray it with a gelatin preservative called Wilt-Pruf. And it’s just beautiful.”
Ultimately, Carloftis loves working with containers because they help make gardening seem not so overwhelming—even for beginners. They give people a simple starting point, a focus from which to base their design. “Everyone is always asking me about easy ways to have a year-round garden, and containers offer that,” he says.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: THE GREEN EXPERIMENT
To read about Jon Carloftis’ newest book, Jon-Jon and the Green Experiment, which gets kids in touch with nature by growing plants, click here: Carloftis