Award-winning garden designer and author Jon Carloftis, whose work has been featured in magazines from House Beautiful to Martha Stewart Living, is the kind of debonair host that makes you feel like you go waaay back, even if you’ve just met. Maybe it’s his infectious Southern charm or the way he tells a story about his Kentucky roots—as though you were there too. Jon’s graciousness is as perennial as the plants he picks for clients like Julianne Moore, Edward Norton, and the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion. Pull up a chaise, mix yourself a Kentucky Sidecar, and listen in as one of America’s best party hosts shares the details of his soirée style and his favorite tips for creating a garden that’s ripe for entertaining.
First things first. Tell us about Botherum, your incredible home in Lexington that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Built in 1851, Botherum was commissioned by Kentucky Attorney General Madison Conyers Johnson, who was one of Abraham Lincoln’s confidantes. Its name comes from a character in a play popular at the time. The house has one floor but the most glorious 18-foot plaster ceilings that take your breath away. My partner Dale’s favorite thing about the house is the enormous ginkgo tree out front. Supposedly, it was a gift to Johnson from statesman Henry Clay.
Tell us about the outdoor entertaining spaces at Botherum.
We’ve divided the property into three main “outdoor rooms” so entertaining can be changed up all the time. The Carriage House has the pool and a large terrace, which is wonderful in the summer when we want to entertain around water. The Walled Garden features a boxwood knot garden, white flowers, and silver foliage, which makes for an elegant evening under the stars. The third, believe it or not, is the parking area under the ginkgo tree. It’s great for setting up tables for larger groups. We roll out antique oriental rugs to cover the pavement so it looks luxe and hang lanterns from the tree. It’s pure magic.
You’re known as one of the best party hosts in America. Tell us about your entertaining style.
I plan everything to the last inch days ahead. I make sure that every surface inside and outside the house is pleasing and interesting and that the food and drinks are all set to go. Of course when our guests arrive, I make it seem as though everything has happened by chance, at the last moment, and then I take them on a magic carpet ride for the night.
Jon and Dale’s Labrador Lily
What’s your preferred way to entertain at home?
We like to serve cocktails outside if the weather is good and a gorgeous supper with extraordinary plates, silver, and stemware inside. Ten minutes before supper is served, I’ll head inside and light all the candles and get the music and lighting correct. When our guests enter, they’re usually so happy to see that someone has taken the time to make the room look really special for them.
How do you prepare your outdoor spaces for a party?
When Dale and I entertain in the garden, there is really no need to have flowers on the tables because the boxwoods, southern magnolias, laurels, and liriope are the show. I do, however, like to add some splashes of color—blue and white by the pool and blue, white, silver, and soft yellow in the formal garden. I also usually throw in a few shocks of orange to wake people up.
One of the gardens at Botherum
What are your best tips for creating a great outdoor entertaining space?
If you have a good view of something, frame it with potted plants to accentuate it. If not, create a room with plants, whether they are in the ground or in large containers to make your guests feel like they’re in the middle of a lush garden. Good lighting is paramount at night—nothing too strong, just use tons of flickering candles on the tables. Go simple with your floral arrangements outside if you’re surrounded by natural beauty. Just bring out the finest stemware, plates, and napkins you have. It will look incredible and make folks feel wanted and special.
A very practical question: how do you keep the bugs away from your outdoor entertaining spaces?
It’s hard. That’s why we don’t serve a lot of food outside unless it’s later in the evening when the bugs are gone. I like the citronella candles from William-Sonoma because their simple packaging works well with any decor.
Jon’s dining room
What do you recommend for outdoor centerpieces?
Use whatever fruits or vegetables are in season. But to make it more effective, use only one or two items, say peaches and corn with the husk pulled back, with similarly colored linens, plates, and glasses, so it’s all very monochromatic and pleasing to the eye. Also, you can put small succulent plants in terracotta pots in groupings and let your guests take them home as party favors. When doing flowers inside the house, I almost always feature one type of flower or leaf from the garden in a gorgeous vessel.
A serve-yourself bar at one of Jon’s outdoor parties
What are some ways to make entertaining outdoors easier on the host?
Offer self-serve options. We always fill a huge copper bowl with wines, local beers, Ale-8-One (old-time local ginger ale), and seltzers so guests can help themselves. We also like to set out a large, self-serve container filled with a pre-mixed cocktail, like Maker’s Mark Sangria. Also, make sure to use gorgeous acrylic stemware and tumblers so you don’t have to worry about broken glass.
Jon and his partner Dale Fisher
You were named to The Salonniere 100 this year for your hosting skills. What do you think makes you an exceptional host?
We’ve entertained everyone from billionaires and famous actors to college kids and garden club ladies. I think our guests would tell you that our parties feel easy and unpretentious and that we make people feel like they’re socializing with old friends. I always try to make everyone feel like they’re the most important person in the room—I learned that from Momma and Daddy.
What do you consider to be the mark of a great host?
Making everyone feel like they’re the best friend you have.
Playing Favorites with Jon Carloftis
Let’s play favorites, who is your favorite florist?
Miss Roiann Ridley from Bowling Green, Kentucky. She’s the best in the nation, if you ask me.
Who is your favorite caterer?
Cooper Vaughan from The Apiary, which is a remarkable event space in downtown Lexington. We designed the gardens there, so it’s always a treat to see people enjoying them.
What’s your favorite dinnerware brand?
We collect vintage plates, usually hand-signed and English or French.
What’s your favorite glassware brand?
Dale has a Lalique fetish and has hundreds of pieces. For the bar, we like vintage Baccarat. For new pieces, I love Artel highballs in blue and brown and these fragile little glasses from CB2. For around the pool, I like Louisville Stoneware Julep Cups or Lexington Silver Julep Cups. Dale had them create a special one for us that is engraved with “BOTHERUM 1851” and a gold ginkgo leaf.
What’s your favorite flatware brand?
We collect hotel silver that is simple or has a funny symbol, like a rooster or farm animal. For the dining table, we have a set of Hermes equestrian silver.
What’s your favorite retail store?
What’s your favorite powder room candle?
We met a local woman who makes the best candles on her farm in the hinterlands. We created candles for each of the homes in my life—River House, Bucks County Farmhouse, and Botherum—and each has an aroma that reminds me of that location.
What’s your favorite powder room soap?
The Horseshoe Soap in Almond by Pre de Provence.
What’s your favorite hostess gift to give?
I learned from Momma to take the hostess as many gardenias as possible when they are in bloom!
Photos: Jon Carloftis, One Kings Lane