Brian Carter ’06 is a natural resource specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but he often uses a shorter description.
“I’m a curator,” he says, while offering up the Latin name for a tree at Seattle’s Ballard Locks. “I make sure your grandchildren will see the same garden you do, just in a different life span.”
Carter is talking about the life span of trees and shrubs in the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden next to the locks that link lakes Union and Washington to Puget Sound. But he could also be referring to the life span of visitors, whose descendants may someday enjoy descendants of these plants.
The difference between life spans and life cycles grows blurry here. At the locks schoolchildren are bathed in sea-green light from the fish windows where they watch salmon migrate upstream to spawn and die. Outside, young salmon get a flying start to their life cycle as they’re blasted downstream through cannon-sized flumes.
In the garden named after him, Carl S. English ’29 lives everywhere: In the rare plants he selected and propagated, in the landscapes he designed with leaf and blossom, in the arched branches that frame an expanse of lawn. Though he retired from the Locks in 1976, English couldn’t stay away. Two years after retiring, “Carl died cutting firewood out back,” Carter says, gesturing over his shoulder toward the maintenance lot. English was 71.
Carter often calls English by his first name, as though Carl were still out back turning on sprinklers to scatter picnickers or brandishing a rake to keep children from treading on tender plants. “Carl was very passionate,” Carter says. “You can’t get away with chasing people with hoses and brooms anymore.”
English was 11 when the first boat passed through the locks in 1916. He got hooked on horticulture in high school, built his own greenhouse at 16, and graduated from Washington State College (now WSU) with a degree in botany. He moved to Portland where he started a small seed and plant business.
In 1931, English was hired as a gardener at the locks, where much of his job reportedly involved mowing the lawn. But he liked to experiment. He got his chance when he became lead gardener in 1941, then horticulturalist in 1969. He used seeds from his company, and asked ship captains going through the locks to bring back specimens. Thanks to his efforts, the seven-acre garden now holds more than 500 species and 1,500 varieties from around the world. The combination of botanical garden, locks, and fish windows—open seven days a week free of charge—draws nearly a million people a year, making it a major tourist attraction in the Seattle area. “It’s the only botanical garden managed by the Department of the Army,” Carter says. “We’re the crown jewel for the Corps of Engineers on the West Coast.”
Now Carter, 48, holds English’s old job as head gardener. He used to be second-in-command at the garden. But he had topped out in his pay grade, and he wanted a promotion. He needed to finish his university degree to go further. So he followed English’s path to WSU. Instead of trekking to Pullman, though, he earned his agriculture degree online through the Distance Degree Program. Since the program was already well-known and respected, “I didn’t have to worry about it being a diploma mill.”
He relishes his role of chief gardener and of following English’s footsteps. “It’s kind of special when I tell visitors that Carl S. English was also a Wazzu alum,” he says. “We started out with a Coug and now we have a Coug running it.”