|By TIM THORNBERRY
SHELBYVILLE, Ky. — Ask Jon Carloftis if he is famous, he will modestly say ‘no;’ but ask any gardener worth their weight in potting soil the same question, they’re likely to answer in a different way.
A native of Rockcastle County, Ky., Carloftis has emerged as one of the premiere landscape architects in the country gaining notoriety through his rooftop creations in New York. So unique are these creations that they were featured in an eight-page spread in the March issue of Martha Stewart Living.
Carloftis, in fact, is so nonchalant about his “fame” that once upon arriving in California for a television project he heard that producers had brought in someone famous from New York City to be a part of the show. After searching to no avail for a celebrity face, he asked the name of the star.
The reply was, “I don’t know but he has a funny last name, I think it’s Greek.”
It was then Carloftis knew he was the famous person. Putting fame aside, most of his time during growing season is spent in the city.
During the off-season, he can be found working the family business known as the Rockcastle River Trading Co. started by his parents in 1955, or lecturing to organizations, groups and garden clubs all across the country as a way to get people involved in gardening.
“My thing is to try and get people in their gardens,” he said. “I want them to know it doesn’t have to be so hard; easy can be good.”
Carloftis recently visited the Shelby County Master Gardeners and Four Seasons Garden Club of Henry and Shelby Counties where he began his lecture with a little history of himself and how he got to where he is today.
“We didn’t have a telephone until 1969; a television until 1985 and no public water until the 1990s,” he said. “Thank goodness we didn’t, that’s how I learned about plants and trees. We (Carloftis is one of six children) were always outside and my daddy would tell me what the trees were. Gardening became my hobby then.”
Standing before the group in his trademark jeans and flannel shirt, Carloftis fielded questions throughout his lecture and showed pictures of his many designs including a house he owns in Bucks County, Pa. With his Kentucky accent in tack, he blended humorous stories of his career and gardening advice.
Anne Armstrong, a club member who was in charge of marketing the Carloftis visit, echoed the excitement among the nearly 300 attendees.
“We thought it would be awesome if he came, so we just asked,” she said. “I think it is great that a young Kentuckian, who has done so well, will return and give back to the area.”
In 1988, after studying horticulture and landscape design at the University of Kentucky, Carloftis made his way to the city for a summer trip.
“I went to New York with a friend for the summer, never really intending to stay,” he said. “While I was there, I had business cards printed with ‘Jon Carloftis: Roof Top Designer’ printed on them. I had never been on a rooftop but it sounded good. I went around and gave my cards to doormen and told them to give the cards to their tenants on the top floors. I finally got a customer and have kept them for 18 years.”
It was through his first customer that Carloftis gained others, growing his business and turning the summer trip to New York into a profession. Today he keeps about 30 regular customers to make sure he does the best he can do with each one while having time for other endeavors and that’s plenty he said.
“I don’t want to get really big. I love what I do and I have to like who I work for so this is enough.”
Carloftis emphasized simplicity and enjoyment as he spoke to the garden club members. “Do what you like, plant what you like,” he told the audience.
“I like to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Everything should be a journey.”
Often among those in the audience is one of Carloftis’ biggest fans, mother Lucille who takes time out from the family store to travel with him occasionally.
“He can take something, do a few things to it and make something so beautiful,” she said proudly. “Jon tries to keep things as natural as possible.”
Lucille Carloftis said she has tried to provide her youngest son with the gift of hard work and the roots that he has carried with him throughout his travels.
“We just work and do what we’re supposed to do,” she said. “I enjoy the store so much and the people that stop by, I can’t wait to see who’s coming next to just sit and visit.”
Some of Carloftis’ fans are Estee Lauder heiress Jane Lauder, movie director M. Night Shyamalan and actress Julianne Moore to name a few. But it is the small groups of everyday ordinary “gardeners” that teach him the most.
“You never know everything and you learn something everyday,” he said. “There will be someone in the audience who tells me something I didn’t know and that keeps it exciting.”
Among his many projects, Carloftis has become involved with the program Families for Farms, an initiative aimed at teaching farmers new ways to use their farms and make a living.
“Last year the event was held in Lexington and I was asked to speak. I told the group that tobacco was not going to work anymore and it was time to move on,” he said.
Carloftis will cochair next year’s program in Louisville and wants to include people who have truly diversified their farming efforts and been successful, so that others may learn from them.
While his mother who went back to college after raising the children and most of his siblings have been teachers either now or at some point in their lives, Carloftis has been the different one until you hear him speak or watch him work. He has become a teacher in his own right.
As the Shelby County group listened to every word he spoke, taking notes and nodding when they heard a familiar term and asking questions about new ideas, it became apparent that the youngest child of Carlos and Lucille Carloftis had followed in their footsteps in many ways.
“When I first went to the city, someone told me to lose the accent and clothes,” he said. “My feelings were so hurt, I called mom and daddy to talk to them and they said to never forget who I am or where I came from, and that has served me well.”
Carloftis has filmed two pilot programs for the Discovery Channel and ABC Family and has finished his first book called First a Garden, which he autographed for the many well-wishers and fans after his presentation.
After the last book had been signed, and the crowd had left, Carloftis, the celebrity rooftop designer from New York City cleaned himself off, packed up and became what he is first - the son of Lucille and Carlos from Rockcastle County.
This farm news was published in the March 1, 2006 issue of Farm World.