On December 10, 1974, the seven acres of gardens at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Ballard are named in honor of Carl S. English Jr. (1904-1976), an Army Corps of Engineers botanist who has helped turn what once looked like a parade ground into a world-class botanical garden. English retired six months earlier after a 43-year career as a gardener and horticulturalist at the locks in Seattle. During his tenure, he transformed the grounds by greatly expanding the planting beds and filling them with species collected from around the world. The result is a garden of year-round interest, with more than 570 species and 1,500 varieties, providing an ever-changing tapestry of color, texture, and form.
Carl English Jr., who was born on October 22, 1904, grew up on his family's farm in Camas, Clark County, in Southwest Washington. He showed an interest in the world of plants from an early age. He built a 16-by-50-foot greenhouse when he was just 16, paying for it and doing most of the work by himself. He earned a degree in botany from the State College of Washington (later Washington State University) in 1929. At college, he met his future wife, Edith Hardin, a zoology major who was also interested in botany. They married in Bellingham on October 22, 1929 (Carl's 25th birthday), and moved to Portland, Oregon, where they established a small seed and plant business, specializing in plants native to the Northwest. They moved to Seattle's Ballard neighborhood in 1931, when Carl began working as assistant gardener for what was then called the Government Locks. (The locks were renamed in 1956 to honor Hiram Chittenden, who was instrumental in the construction of the locks and the Lake Washington Ship Canal, of which they form an integral part.) The couple established a one-acre nursery at their new home, with experimental plots and a small greenhouse, growing plants from seeds and seedlings they collected on exploring trips around the region.
The basic plan for what was initially called "the reservation grounds at Locksite" (Sargent to Cavanaugh) had been laid out in 1915 (two years before the official opening of the locks) by Carl F. Gould (1873-1939). Gould was a prominent Seattle architect who had been hired to design the Administration Building at the locks. His many other Seattle projects over the course of his career included Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington and the Seattle Art Museum at Volunteer Park. For the locks, Gould developed a landscape plan that mixed formal elements (a grid pattern with straight lines at the entry and along the walls of the locks) with softer, more naturalistic features (a curving loop road to the north). The plan was heavily influenced by the English landscape style, which emerged in England in the late eighteenth century. The style had been popularized in the United States by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) and brought to Seattle in the early 1900s by Olmsted's nephew and adopted son, John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920).
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was building the locks and would operate them, asked the Seattle Board of Park Commissioners for help in implementing Gould's plan. In a 1915 letter to chief engineer Lt. Col. James B. Cavanaugh (1869-1927), assistant engineer A. W. Sargent predicted that, "If properly laid out, the grounds can be made one of the most attractive spots in Seattle and can be maintained at moderate expense if the services of the permanent lock employees can be utilized for that purpose" (Sargent to Cavanaugh). Most of the trees, shrubs, and perennials planted at the locks during the early years were donated by the city parks department. A fulltime gardener wasn't hired until 1920, three years after the locks opened. Locks personnel kept the expansive lawns mowed.
A Garden in Transition
Photographs of the garden in the early 1930s show a landscape dominated by well-manicured lawns, clipped hedges, and sheared, conical-shaped conifers. This was a look favored by Gustaf J. Eckerstrom, the head gardener from 1925 until 1941. English began to make subtle changes after he was hired as Eckerstrom's assistant in 1931. He planted a number of new trees, many of which he had propagated at his private nursery, but it was not until he replaced Eckerstrom as head gardener that English began to create the garden that exists today.
By that point, English and his wife Edith had amassed a collection of seeds and seedlings native to the Northwest that was highly valued by collectors in other regions, both in the U.S. and around the world. By exchanging seeds with international botanical gardens, English was able to obtain a wide variety of rare and exotic plant species. He used his private nursery as well as the greenhouses and grounds at the locks to test new plants for their suitability. It was a challenge to find plants that would thrive on the site, much of which had been covered with clay and glacial till excavated during the construction of the locks, creating widespread problems with drainage. But as the original plants died out or needed to be removed for other reasons, English replaced them with botanically interesting species he had grown and tested himself. By 1969, about 80 percent of plants growing in the garden had been selected by English.
Throughout the garden, English expanded existing beds and added new ones. He shunned roses but loved trees, especially species from exotic places. Trees and shrubs were allowed to grow with minimal pruning, if any. Lower understory plants and ground covers were placed around taller shrubs and trees for a layered effect. Renee L. Freier described his approach in a 1989 report prepared for the Corps:
"Aesthetically speaking, English planted with a variety of textures, overlapping and blending the different levels and layers of vegetation and creating visibly impervious screens. ... The great variety of species used throughout the garden and within each bed allowed for a mixture of different foliage textures creating a 'tapestry of foliage' not always possible when fewer plant types are used" ("Historic Grounds Report," 29).
An expert grower as well as a designer, English planted heat-loving plants -- like magnolias -- next to stone buildings, to take advantage of reflected heat. He placed large, flat rocks around the base of other heat-lovers, like silver-leaf oaks, to reflect heat and create micro-climates for companion plants. In one of his first planting projects, he created a 300-foot-long rock garden in front of a house originally built for the lockkeeper (later called the Cavanaugh House and used as a residence by the Corps' district engineer). In a 1938 interview with The Seattle Times, English said he had filled it with more than 700 varieties of alpine plants, about half of them native to the Northwest, the rest obtained through international exchanges. The site was initially in full sun. Now completely shaded by trees -- most of them planted by English -- the rockery has evolved into a haven for hostas and other shade-loving plants.
In an article written in 1972 for American Horticulturist, English described his garden philosophy this way:
"An effort is made to have something of interest at all times of the year beginning with the winter-blooming shrubs, then the spring abundance of bloom of both trees and shrubs, followed by the summer bloom of the annuals and the late-blooming trees and shrubs, and closing with soothing colors of the autumn leaves. At the locks garden real effort has been put forth throughout the years to ... continually acquir[e] new kinds of plants to try out and dispers[e] the choicer ones. Hopes of developing a garden that not only would be a joyous sight to see but also a garden worthy of serious study" (English, 29-31).
Both Carl and Edith English actively supported the community of plant lovers. They lectured frequently to garden clubs and community groups and sometimes offered weekly classes in their home. They spent many summer vacations on seed-collecting trips. As their reputations grew, they would "accompany [visiting] horticulturists and botanists on mountain field trips to help identify plants the visitors wanted to study" (Peterson). They hosted the International Botanical Congress in August 1969. Separately and together, they won many awards for their work, including a joint award from the American Rock Garden Society in 1966. The Seattle Federal Executive Board recognized Carl's efforts on behalf of the locks and plant communities around the world by naming him the outstanding civil servant of military agencies in 1969.
Carl English retired in June 1974, after more than four decades at the locks. Six months later, on December 10, 1974, the Army Corps honored him with a bronze plaque, erected at the entrance of the gardens that he did so much to create, dedicating and naming them the Carl S. English Jr. Gardens. Less than two years later, on August 10, 1976, English was collecting firewood near the parking lot at the locks when he suffered a fatal heart attack and died at age 71.
In 2017, the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Gardens are part of the Lake Washington Ship Canal Historic District, which was established in December 1978. The garden continues to be maintained much as English envisioned it. When plants are replaced -- due to natural aging, disease, or stresses related to weather -- cuttings of the original specimens are used to replace them whenever possible.
The garden is also a living entity, evolving in response to changing conditions. Trees and shrubs that were placed too close to each other have either been removed or, where possible, transplanted to areas with more open space. As Freier noted, "English was less than tolerant of general public use of the garden and did not allow picnicking or active play on the lawns" ("Historic Grounds Report," 38). He used various kinds of fences, including concrete posts with cable strung between them, and ran sprinklers to keep people off the grass. Today most of the fences have been removed and public use is encouraged. Some of English's successors have put their own stamp on the garden. A "cove trail" -- a small loop at the west end of the site -- was added in 1981, and a formal rose garden in 1988.
Still, the garden remains a true "botanical garden," dedicated to the cultivation and display of a wide range of plants, particularly those that are rare, threatened, or endangered, as well as those that are simply interesting and beautiful. It is the only botanical garden that's maintained by the army and thus by the Department of Defense. Together with the locks, it is among the most-visited sites in Seattle. "Every gardener after Carl has tried to preserve the plants that he planted and to preserve the intent of his plans," said Michelle McMorran, one of three fulltime gardeners on the staff in 2017. "We're here to be stewards of the garden that's here and maintain the ideal of making it a garden worthy of study and interest year round" (McMorran interview).