Carl S. English Jr. -- The Man Behind the Ballard Locks Gardens

  • By Sara Peterson
  • Posted 12/02/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20223

In his more than three decades as the head gardener at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, Carl S. English Jr. created and nurtured the gardens that now bear his name. Sara Peterson wrote this account of English's life and work at the locks gardens for the Friends of the Ballard Locks website, and it is presented here with the group's permission.

Carl S. English Jr.

The gardens at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks -- or as many people call them, the Ballard Locks -- might not be the often-photographed and popular gathering place they are today if it wasn't for Carl S. English Jr., the gardens' namesake. English was a budding botanist even in his formative years, and his lifelong love for and fascination with plants and flora can be seen in every tree and flower that decorates the locks.

Carl S. English Jr. was born on October 22, 1904, and grew up on his family's farm near Camas, Washington. His green thumb most likely came from his mother, who took care of the farm's many houseplants and garden flowers. Carl made his own foray into the world of plants at age 16, when he built a 16-by-50-foot greenhouse using his own money and with very little help.

A high-school botany course solidified English's interest in the subject, and he eventually enrolled at the State College of Washington (now Washington State University) to become a botany specialist. It was while he was in Pullman, Washington, that English met his future wife, Edith Hardin, at the school's herbarium. She was a zoology major herself, but was just as interested in botany as Carl was. They were also both students of Dr. Harold St. John, a botany professor who later taught at the University of Hawaii.

English graduated from college in 1929 with a degree in botany, and he and Edith moved to Portland, Oregon. While there, English did landscaping work with the Swiss Floral Company. In addition, he and Edith maintained a small seed and plant business of their own, focusing on plants native to the Pacific Northwest.

The Englishes moved north to Seattle, Washington, in 1931, and that November, Carl began working with the Corps of U.S. Engineers as an assistant horticulturist for the then-called Government Locks (now the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks). English would eventually become the locks' main horticulturist. He and Edith also brought their growing plant and seed business with them from Portland, as it was quite successful in its own right.

The Man Behind the Ballard Locks Gardens

With such an interest in so many plant varieties, English felt compelled to apply his expertise and enthusiasm to the Ballard Locks gardens. The gardens' look had changed very little since the locks first opened in 1917. Original plantings for the gardens had come from materials donated by the Seattle Park Development group, and mainly consisted of a few shrubs. In fact, before Carl came along, the main duty of the groundkeepers was mowing the lawn.

By 1940, English had been placed in charge of the gardens, and starting then he made it his responsibility to build the gardens into something special. Little by little, he replaced many of the original plants with ones he had grown himself from seeds. It was actually quite challenging to find plants that would thrive or even grow on the grounds, due to poor drainage over a lot of the area. But English and his wealth of knowledge were up to the task.

He sought to transform the gardens into a showcase for all sorts of trees, shrubs, and plants. Thanks to his seed and plant business, Carl had access to a variety of plants from nearly all parts of the globe, and at virtually no cost. The Englishes had their own seeds and plants to contribute to the project as well that they had collected on vacations throughout the western part of the continent. Plus, they had a lively seed exchange with foreign botanical gardens and with friends who shared an interest in plants.

As Carl built up the gardens, he used small greenhouses at the locks as temporary homes for the hundreds of plants he grew from seed and tested in the garden environment. Under Carl's direction and dedication, the gardens eventually flourished into a haven for botanists and plant lovers from around the world. And, of course, they became a popular gathering place that many locals and visitors still enjoy today.

English loved sharing his expertise and knowledge with anyone who showed interest. In 1969, he put together a free list for visitors of the plants in the locks gardens at that time, plants he had cultivated and tested to determine their ability to survive in the northwest. And he always had time to answer questions from visitors or summer helpers. University classes, arboretum units, garden clubs, and other groups could sign up for free tours of the gardens led by English himself, though these hour-long tours were so popular that reservations usually needed to be made a year in advance.

Outside of the locks, Carl and Edith were extremely active in the community of plant lovers. They offered once-a-week classes out of their home on horticulture or botany. In the summer, they would either take their regular seed-collecting trips, or else accompany horticulturists and botanists on mountain field trips to help identify plants the visitors wanted to study.

The English house was known for its library of horticultural and botanical books, which the Englishes happily let Garden Club members use. Both Carl and Edith were members of the American Rock Garden Society's northwestern unit, and the group gave the Englishes an award in 1966 that recognized the many contributions they had made in the field of plants. Carl was also a member of the Men's Garden Club of America, the American Horticultural Society, the Scottish Rock Garden Club, and the Alpine Garden Society of England, plus he was a fellow with the Royal Horticultural Societies of Kew, England, and Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Carl S. English Jr. Gardens

To honor his tireless work both at the locks and with plant communities around the world, Carl was named 1969's outstanding civil servant of military agencies by the Seattle Federal Executive Board. But perhaps an even greater honor was bestowed on Carl on December 10, 1974. That's when a bronze plaque was erected at the entrance of the locks gardens, dedicating and naming the gardens after Carl.

English had retired from his position at the locks shortly before the gardens were named for him. But despite no longer working at the gardens officially, Carl's influence was ingrained everywhere. His dream of botanical splendor had become a reality, so much so that when Carl retired, experimenting with rare plants as further possible additions for the gardens petered out for a while. According to Walter Lyon, the head gardener for the locks after Carl's retirement, English's vision for the gardens was pretty much complete, and no one saw any need to mess with it.

About two years after retiring, on August 10, 1976, Carl S. English Jr. suffered what proved to be a fatal heart attack near the parking lot of the locks. But decades later, his gardens still flourish. And though updates have been made to some of the plants Carl introduced to the grounds, his vision of the gardens as a location that plant lovers of all levels could enjoy is still alive and strong, as he continues to look on from the dedication plaque that bears his likeness.


Sources:

For a full list of sources, see the Friends of the Ballard Locks website accessed December 1, 2016 (http://blog.friendsoftheballardlocks.org/2015/08/carl-s-english-jr-man-behind-ballard.html).


Related Topics:   Biographies | Environment | People's Histories

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