If garden designer Jon Carloftis were to take an aerial tour of the Manhattan skyline, he might be astounded at the imprint he has made on New York—florally speaking. From the Upper East Side to Tribeca, more than 50 rooftop and terrace gardens, including those of celebrities Mike Myers, Julianne Moore, and Edward Norton, are the result of Carloftis’s handiwork.
However, nothing has cemented his status as one of the Big Apple’s go-to garden designers more than his recent hire to create the roof garden for the block-long Google headquarters in the former Port Authority building on Eighth Avenue. “I got a call in June 2010 from the Google people asking me if I wanted to do a garden project for the building’s roof,” Carloftis recalls. “They asked if I could start at the beginning of July and be finished by the end of August.”
That would have given most people pause. Not Carloftis. Even though he acknowledges that it was the biggest project he’s ever undertaken, he says, “It never occurred to me to say no.” Today, the Google building has four terrace gardens, including a vegetable garden (which comes in handy for feeding the company’s 2,300 employees), and Carloftis has another notch on his garden hoe.
He may have taken Manhattan by storm, but Carloftis is quick to admit that when he envisions the perfect garden his thoughts turn to his native Kentucky. Growing up in Rockcastle County with the Daniel Boone National Forest as a backdrop, he has been in love with plants since childhood. Carloftis learned from his mother, Lucille, and his grandmother, Verda, that “while it’s easy to love flowers, you must have true reverence for trees, which are the bones of any garden,” he says.
Trees—from catalpa, river birch, sycamore, and pine, to redbuds, winterberries, magnolias, and boxwoods—are key to any Carloftis-designed garden. From there, he adds native grasses and flowers that he calls “honest and unpretentious”—hollyhocks, black-eyed Susans, phlox, Virginia bluebells, and his favorite, daisies. “They’re just such happy flowers,” he says. “They look like miniature suns.”
Although he still has an active hand in the family business, the garden-centric Rockcastle River Trading Co. in eastern Kentucky, he’s finding that more often these days, it’s central Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region that makes the best canvas for his art. “I know it’s called the Bluegrass,” Carloftis says, “but Lexington is green—lush green on top of lusher green on top of more green. The landscape fits perfectly with my garden philosophy.”
It’s a philosophy that has served him well in designing showpiece gardens for private homes or smaller plots for businesses. He designed thoroughbred owner Greg Goodman’s Mt. Brilliant Farm in Lexington, as well as television and movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer and his wife Linda’s Walnut Groves Farm in Bloomfield, Kentucky. If Carloftis is all about bringing Lexington’s lush, natural landscape into more urban areas, he is also about not letting the garden overpower the house. He was content to use clean, simple lines for the green space at Goodman’s Mt. Brilliant, allowing the mansion to be the star attraction. Similarly, he kept the Bruckheimers’ garden at Walnut Groves very natural, choosing perennials such as hollyhocks, guava, and love-lies-bleeding, which, according to Carloftis, “make it look as if the garden has just sprung up on its own.”
Rooftop gardens at L.V. Harkness & Co. and Dudley’s Restaurant, both in Lexington, and the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville are also the result of Carloftis’s talent. For the two Lexington businesses, he says he created the gardens to reflect the buildings—in L.V. Harkness’s case, the interior, and in Dudley’s, the exterior. L.V. Harkness & Co., a provider of fine gifts and interior design, is “all about the tradition and elegance of the Bluegrass, and the merchandise reflects that,” Carloftis says. “I thought the garden should, as well.” To achieve that sense of timeless elegance, he chose topiaries, classic columned arbors, and colorful blooms placed in black high-gloss planters—a glamorous setting for owner Meg Jewett-Leavitt to host cocktail parties for customers and friends.
He took a different approach for the rooftop garden at Dudley’s, a fine dining restaurant in a historic downtown building. “It was a small space to begin with,” Carloftis explains, “and then we had the additional problem of having to camouflage several air conditioners.” Hiding them with a wall of shrubbery and adding boxes containing herbs, peach trees, and espaliered pear trees, the talented designer created what he calls “an urban loft cool.”
For Carloftis, garden projects are never about size—neither that of the allotted space nor the owner’s pocketbook. It’s all about the challenge. “Designing a garden is like meeting a new person for the first time,” he insists. “Just like every person has a story, when I look at a space, I look at the story it’s trying to tell me, and I design the garden accordingly.”
While the sought-after designer is regularly featured in national magazine publications and on morning news television shows, he downplays his growing status as a garden guru. “I don’t make the rules,” Carloftis says. “I just follow Mother Nature’s.”
“Designing a garden is like meeting a person for the first time. Just like every person has a story, when I look at a space, I look at the story it’s trying to tell me, and I design the garden accordingly.” —Jon Carloftis
BY PATTI NICKELL