Brian Carter natural resource specialist at Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden.
Photo by Brian Maki, Center for Distance and Professional Education

BALLARD, Wash. – Brian Carter points at a tree, and rattles off yet another Latin name. His title is natural resource specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He uses a shorter description.

“I’m a curator,” he says. “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 in Ballard, Washington. But he could also be referring to the life span of visitors, whose descendants may someday enjoy descendants of these plants.

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The difference between life spans and life cycles grows blurry here. At the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks next door, schoolchildren are bathed in sea-green light from the fish windows as 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-size flumes.

In the garden named after him, Carl S. English lives on in many locations in the garden: 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.

 
“Carl died cutting firewood out back,” Carter says, gesturing over his shoulder. English was 71. He had retired two years earlier, and returned to cut up drift logs. His body was found in the maintenance lot on Aug. 11, 1976.
 
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 at kids threatening tender plants.  “Carl was very passionate,” Carter says. “You can’t get away with chasing people with hoses and brooms anymore.”

Botanist from youth

English was 11 when the first boat passed through the locks in 1916. He got hooked on botany in high school, built his own greenhouse at 16, and graduated from Washington State College (now WSU) in 1929 with a degree in botany. He moved to Portland where he started a small seed and plant business. In 1931, he was hired as a gardener at the locks. Much of his job reportedly involved mowing the lawn.
 
English 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. The seven-acre garden now holds more than 500 species and 1,500 varieties. 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 the third-biggest 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.”

Finishing his degree

Carter used to be second-in-command at the garden. He had topped out in his pay grade, and he wanted a promotion. But he needed to finish his university degree. Like English, he went to WSU. Unlike English, he earned his degree online, through WSU’s online degree program.

“WSU has a well-known program,” he said. “It’s accredited and I didn’t have to worry about it being a diploma mill.” Carter was awarded his agriculture degree in 2006, and he got his promotion to the top spot.

“It’s kind of special when I tell visitors that Carl S. English was also a Wazzu alum,” he said. “We started out with a Coug and now we have a Coug running it.”