The Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Gardens today. Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Gardens today. Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The next time you visit the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, take a good look around. This is the only Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) facility in the nation that is home to a botanical garden, and the garden is due primarily to the efforts of one man.

The basic facts are easy to find. Carl English (’29 Botany) came to the site in 1931. In 1967 the Corps gave him its highest award for a civilian employee. Carl retired in 1974 and died two years later. In 1978 the site was designated a national historic district, due in no small part to Carl’s garden.

But who was Carl?

Michael Fleming, who served as horticulturist at the Chittenden locks from 1978 to 1989, met English a few times but got to know him mainly through the garden he had created and through stories told by people who had known him well. There wasn’t much else to go on, because English rarely wrote anything down. Whatever plans he made, whatever test plantings and seed exchanges he did, the details were all in his head.

“He never kept a record,” says Fleming. “I can’t figure out how he did what he did without records.”

Carl English amid thriving plants in one of his test gardens. Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Carl English amid thriving plants in one of his test gardens. Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

During his years at the site, Fleming would occasionally find unusual plants that English had tucked into some odd corner and, perhaps, forgot.

“There were things like that all over the garden,” he says. “It was like a treasure hunt.”

An ACE report on the history of the locks says that when English started working as assistant gardener there, the site had a military feel, with neatly trimmed conifer trees standing guard at sidewalk intersections. When he became the head gardener 10 years later, English began using the seven-acre site as a botanical canvas. He experimented with color, line, shape, and texture. He created a layered effect with naturalistic groupings of shrubs and trees, and his minimal pruning allowed the trees to achieve their natural form. He developed several new cultivars, including the scarlet horse chestnuts that now line the main walk. He planted little-known natives of the Cascades that he and his wife, Edith Hardin English (’24 Education, ’29 M.S. Zoology), collected during back-country expeditions. He also planted species from other continents, especially Asia, which he grew from seeds sent to him by colleagues overseas or brought to him by sailors he befriended as their ships passed through the locks.

English guarded his domain with parental ferocity. Fleming heard tales of English turning the sprinklers on would-be picnickers and brandishing a pitchfork at visitors who wandered onto the lawns. According to the ACE report, “English saw the primary (only) role of the garden as a botanical display, not as a park and least of all as a playground.”

An article English wrote in 1972 for American Horticulturist is one of the few records we have of his thoughts about the garden in his own words.

“An effort is made to have something of interest at all times of the year,” he wrote, adding that he did all his work in “hopes of developing a garden that not only would be a joyous sight to see but [would also be] worthy of serious study.”