This Historic Kentucky Home's Classic Gardens Were Three Decades in the Making

botherum garden tour exterior
Ngoc Minh Ngo

In the spring of 2012, garden designer Jon Carloftis got the call he'd been waiting for since his undergrad days at the University of Kentucky. Botherum, an 1851 Greek Revival house he'd been dreaming about for nearly three decades, had come on the market.

Tucked behind a six-foot stone wall on a quiet one-way street, the 169-year-old home sits on nearly an acre of land smack in the middle of downtown Lexington. Carloftis had first seen the place when he bartended a party there his senior year. "I remember looking up as I entered the hallway that led to the bar and wondering, 'Who on earth would build an 18-foot octagonal ceiling in such a tiny space?' Then I immediately thought, 'Someone I'd like to meet!'" he says with a laugh. "It was 1984, and I decided then and there that if the house ever came up for sale, I'd figure out a way to buy it." Almost 30 years later, he did just that.

It was a happy ending—and a bumpy beginning. "That first day, it was like walking through a haunted house, and the smell was almost unbearable," recalls Carloftis. Empty for 15 years, the antebellum residence had a leaky roof; neglected, overgrown gardens; and a rowdy bunch of raccoons squatting in the basement. But he remained optimistic: "I grew up without TV. I read lots of books, and I knew I could figure things out," says the designer, who was raised on a farm in eastern Kentucky with five siblings and has built a flourishing landscape practice since his first commission in 1988. Instead of recruiting restoration experts, Carloftis and his then-partner, Dale Fisher, rolled up their sleeves and served as the contractors on the renovation, agreeing to tackle the house first, then the grounds. "We shook hands on it, but of course I couldn't help but work on the gardens simultaneously," admits Carloftis.

Before sinking a single plant in the ground, he hauled away 70 uninvited black walnuts, honeysuckles, and locust saplings and trees, then dug in 'Bracken's Brown Beauty' magnolias and evergreens along the fence line for privacy. Telephone poles came down, underground power cables were laid, circa-1900 pipes were swapped for new water lines, and cracked walkways were rebuilt. The pair also gave some much-needed TLC to the property's important, albeit neglected, heritage trees, including an enormous ginkgo and a stately sugar maple, both planted sometime in the 19th century by Madison Conyers Johnson, Botherum's original owner.

With the landscape's thorniest challenges resolved, the plantsman studied historic photographs of the property to channel the spirit of its past. "I wanted the garden to reveal itself fully from inside the house," says Carloftis, who designed the space while looking out of his windows, using the front entrance and hallways as sight lines. In short order, he restored an existing walled garden and planted a formal boxwood one, complete with Grecian statues and classical urns and obelisks. He repurposed the former service alley as a shady woodland run for his yellow Labrador retrievers, Lily and Gertrude. And he moved a garden shed with a striking peaked roof from the front driveway to his six-square vegetable plot to create a focal point, as well as—here's the genius stroke—to block a view of neighboring condos and a parking lot. Remarkably, says Carloftis, the project was finished in a record one year and six days, and went on to win the prestigious Preservation Project Award from the Kentucky Heritage Council. But the real reward is that rather than having completed the project and moving on, Carloftis gets to wake up in this little slice of heaven each day. "Even if I won $100 million in tomorrow's lottery, there's no place on earth I'd rather be," he says. "Botherum is my forever home. It was meant for me."

01 of 07

Lush Layers

clematis flowers
Ngoc Minh Ngo

Native Virginia creeper and pretty, double-petal 'Diamond Ball' clematis from Proven Winners cover the concrete blocks in Jon Carloftis' 30-by-60-foot walled garden. "The clematis is a beautiful color, and blooms all summer long," he says.

02 of 07

The Lay of the Land

garden layout brick path
Ngoc Minh Ngo

"I like easy, breezy gardens," says Carloftis, who filled each quadrant of this scheme with low-maintenance Asiatic lilies, peonies, purple veronica, and self-seeding foxgloves and 'White Queen' cleome. Illinois-based Longshadow Planters made dry-cast limestone replicas of Botherum's original urns; Carloftis planted them with spiral topiaries.

"The armillary sphere provides a focal point without being over-the-top," he says of this reproduction of an ancient tool used to model the night sky. Flanked by spindly red-maple volunteers, a commanding, nearly two- hundred-year-old sugar maple provides a verdant privacy screen as well as welcome shade in summer.

Four cedar obelisks, which he designed and painted white, anchor each quadrant and draw eyes upward. "Repetition of a shape within a smaller garden area makes me happy," says Carloftis, whose 'Green Mountain' boxwood parterre, or formal pattern of shrubs, is dotted with spheres. 'Emerald Green' arborvitae were trained over a metal frame and tied together with string to form graceful arches at the east and west entrances.

03 of 07

A Charming Spot

man dog outside garden shed
Ngoc Minh Ngo

Carloftis, shown here with his 12-year-old yellow Lab, Lily, repurposed a drab outbuilding into an alabaster potting shed for his vegetable garden. He filled Botherum's signature urns with fragrant angel's-trumpets (Brugmansia spp.) and pineapple sage.

04 of 07

Cherubs and Lilies

cherub garden tour flowers
Ngoc Minh Ngo

In the formal garden, a limestone cherub overlooks Digitalis x mertonensis and D. purpurea 'Sugar Plum', and a combination of dwarf Asiatic lilies ('Tiny Crystal', 'Tiny Invader', and 'Tiny Toons') that don't require pruning or staking—"I'm drawn to common plants that work," says Carloftis.

05 of 07

A Place to Rest

rustic garden bench
Ngoc Minh Ngo

A 25-year-old teak bench, peppered with lichens, rests in the walled garden.

06 of 07

Velvety Foliage

garden foliage
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In a shadier woodland plot, variegated Solomon's seal (Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum') and velvety Stachys byzantina 'Big Ears' complement the chartreuse foliage of a 'Gold Heart' bleeding heart.

07 of 07

Living History

garden ginkgo tree
Ngoc Minh Ngo

Botherum's first owner planted the giant ginkgo that shades the elegant front entrance, with its Corinthian columns and dentil molding. The exotic tree was a present from his friend Kentucky statesman Henry Clay, who'd been given several saplings from Japan in the mid-19th century, says Carloftis.

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