When garden designer Jon Carloftis and his partner, Dale Fisher, bought historic Botherum in 2012, remnants of once-elegant gardens and landscaping could barely be found after decades of neglect and decay.
"It was a mess," Fisher said. "We took out 70 trees just to see what we had, where to start, what to do."
But more pressing than the garden was the work needed on the mid-19th-century house, including replacing the leaking roof and stabilizing a dangerous chimney that looked ready to collapse.
Early on, Carloftis told Fisher, "I promise we're not going to do the garden for a whole year. We'll concentrate on the house.'"
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"Twenty-four hours later I hear 'beep ... beep' and look out to see two trucks loaded full of plant material in the driveway," Fisher said.
The overgrown tangle of weeds and honeysuckle that faced Carloftis and Fisher when they bought the house has been turned into a series of beautiful outdoor rooms: a restored formal garden, a vegetable and herb garden, a woodland garden, a walled garden and a kitchen garden.
A majestic ginkgo tree with a 21-foot circumference was given to Botherum's original owner, Madison Johnson, by Kentucky statesman Henry Clay.
On Sunday, Botherum's gardens — along with two others in Central Kentucky, including the Governor's Mansion in Frankfort — will be open to the public as part of the Garden Conservancy's Open Days program.
Private gardens not usually accessible to the public will be open for a fee, with the funds going to help the nonprofit organization preserve culturally and historically significant gardens throughout the nation for the public's enjoyment.
The Yew Dell Botanical Gardens in Louisville is one of the conservancy's special preservation projects.
Since 1989, the Garden Conservancy has helped more than 100 gardens to survive and prosper. An important source of the conservancy's fundraising is the Open Days tours.
Touring Botherum the house is not part of Open Days, but the doors will be open and roped off so visitors can look inside. Carloftis and Fisher will be on hand to talk to visitors and answer questions.
"We took the house back as much as we could to 1851," Carloftis said. But the furnishings are eclectic, a mix of contemporary and antique.
Also open Sunday will be Mount Brilliant Farm on Huffman Mill Pike, which dates to a 1774 land grant from Thomas Jefferson to the Russell family and is rich in Bluegrass history. Greg and Becky Goodman are the current owners. Carloftis designed some of the farm's gardens.
On June 28, Carloftis and Fisher's garden at their house in Bucks County, Pa., will be open on another Open Days tour.
'One year and six days'
Botherum was built by noted Lexington architect John McMurtry for Johnson in 1851. The house is a Greek Revival gem in the middle of a neighborhood of Victorian houses built after Johnson died in 1886. The property, originally a 36-acre farm, is now less than an acre. Johnson raised Merino sheep, which gave nearby Merino Street its name.
On the property is a charming carriage house built in the 1980s that serves as an office and guesthouse. Carloftis and Fisher's first project after buying Botherum was to fix up the carriage house; they lived there until the main house was finished.
Considering the deteriorated state of the house and grounds, Carloftis said, "It could easily have taken five years to get everything in shape."
But about three months into the work, leaders of the LexArts united arts fund asked if they could hold one of their major events at Botherum; Carloftis and Fisher said yes.
That gave them a deadline; they had eight months to make the house livable and redo the landscape.
"One year and six days" from when they bought Botherum, work was completed, Carloftis said.
All this while they were busy with their garden design business, Jon Carloftis Fine Gardens, "to pay for the work we were doing here," Carloftis said.
As work progressed, they stumbled on treasures from the past.
While clearing one section of the yard of bushes, weeds and trash, they discovered brick from the original formal garden in front of the house. They used the brick to restore the formal garden.
Poking around in the basement they found pieces of an iron fence that now encloses the vegetable garden. In the center of the vegetable garden is an original 1850s brick out building they found and moved from another location on the property.
Also in the basement were signs saying "Visit Historic Botherum." Carloftis speculates that in the 1930s and 1940s, the owners opened the house for tours, perhaps as a source of income.
Carloftis and Fisher are known for their parties.
"We can entertain almost 300 people because there are so many places for people to go, inside and out," Fisher said.
During one busy week earlier this month, they had five events in seven days.
This past week they gave four separate dinner parties, events they had donated to auctions for different charities. On Saturday, the eight guest speakers and special guests from the Summer Solstice Garden Celebration at the Governor's Mansion are coming for cocktails.
On Monday, judges from America in Bloom, who will be in town to evaluate Lexington for that organization's beautification award, will stop by.
But Carloftis and Fisher plan to cut back on entertaining.
"This first year that the house was restored we have shared it," Carloftis said, "but next year we're not."