Landscaping The Wright Way: the Floricycle

A portion of the Floricycle at the Darwin D. Martin House; Buffalo, New York

We could all be forgiven if we don’t already know this word – floricycle – since the only known reference is in regards to the Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo, New York designed by Frank Lloyd Wright with the help of Walter Burley Griffin, who served as his landscape architect and horticultural expert for most of the project, and landscape architect J. Wilkinson Elliot, from Pittsburgh, PA in the final year.

This work is from the Brady-Handy collection at the Library of Congress

The word originates from hemicycle, which, in legislatures, is a semicircular, or horseshoe-shaped, debating chamber designed to encourage consensus among political parties rather than confrontation. The approach has been adopted by governments across the world, including the United States – although I truly could not say how well it’s working. Adapt the word to the world of flora, however, and you arrive at floricycle.

The more Mrs. Martin turns the matter over in her mind, the more unhappy she becomes about your exteriors. I think that awful Fricke approach and entrance is what distresses her, and possibly the (Hertley? [sic]) has something to do with it. I think she fully agrees with me that the interior of our own home will be safe in your hands, and that only the exterior causes anxiety.

A March 1903 letter Mr. Martin wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright

Consensus did not come easily in regards to Wright’s landscape plan. Historical documents show that Martin sent many letters of protest. In the fall of 1904 he wrote that “the hemicycle is horribly big and deep.” In late 1905, Walter Burley Griffin left Wright’s office to establish his own practice and ultimately left the country when he won the competition to design Australia’s capital, Canberra – which left Martin even less confident regarding the garden plan. He hired his own landscape architect, there was talk of a lily pond in the middle of the hemicycle, torrential rains flooded the whole area. Things were not going well.

Eventually, Wright was re-established to complete his vision of the hemicycle and the area was finally planted in what was termed a ‘plant thick and thin quick’ strategy. This was also about the time the two first began calling the hemicycle a floricycle; obviously an invented word between them to describe this concept of planting in a hemicycle, or half circle, with a sequential cycle of blooming plants from March to November.

Martin requests the Floricycle plan from Wright on 15 January 1906:

Dear Sir:–

Is the floricycle plan complete ready? It is the ides of January and there is only sufficient time between now and planting date for me to

1st. Pry the plan away from you, 2nd. Digest it,

3rd. Decide about the disposition of stock now planted on the hemicycle.

4th. Shop for the stock, 5th. Place the order.

If you want to see this thing go through this Spring, now is the time to deliver.

Darwin D. Martin (Martin Complex) Cultural Landscape Report

Large repeating masses of shrubs were densely planted in the outermost rings of the floricycle, with a similar density of assorted perennials in the inner rings – all repeating along an arc extending more than 160 lineal feet at the outside radius of the home’s veranda with a short but steep (1 on 4 slopes, 25%) crescent-shaped embankment on the south end. A decade later, the outer shrubs would have reached a height to finally block the views to the street, and although the floricyle would have required substantial thinning throughout this time, the features of the floricyle design would have been visually apparent.

When our excavator first surveyed the back garden of our cottage he proposed two sloped sections, stretching in a half circle from one end of the property to the other with a swale between the two. The slope was necessary, he insisted, to protect the street up above from collapsing, and the swale would keep heavy rains from flooding the house. We certainly did not want this to happen, and so there it was. I was so disappointed. All I had wanted was a spot of flat land for gardening.

We asked about using retaining walls to increase the flat area behind the house, but the excavator made a strong case for how those walls would reduce overall gardening space and would inevitably need maintenance over time. Best to leave the slopes natural and learn to garden with what fate had given me.

At the end of the project, he proposed a set of stone steps that cuts through what I call right field, connecting the lower slope with the upper. The steps come in handy, except when I want to haul things in my rolling garden bucket, and then a pathway may have been easier.

Lilies and iris are planted in the swale while trees, shrubs, ornamental grass and rushes are planted along the outer rings.

Maybe there’s floricycles all round the world. We just never knew what to call them. Mine is 122 linear feet along the outside radius with quite steep slopes (1 on 2 slopes, 50%). I’ve managed to fill every area, more or less, with perennials, shrubs and a few trees. Although not so much a ‘plant thick and thin quick’ strategy, but definitely a ‘plant incessantly and divide unceasingly’ plan.

I’ve ended up with the lily pond Mr. Wright decided against because of that spot in center field that stays constantly wet. Our own torrential rains necessitated a french drain at the base of the wet spot, although that turned into a design opportunity when I thought of settling a bird bath on top the drain.

Each plant in Mr. Wright’s blueprint for the floricycle was designated by a circle with a number, representing the month of the year that plant would do its thing, either by flowering or for fall color. Among these plants are 5000 snowdrops and 4000 crocuses (March). There’s 320 varieties of columbine (May), over 1200 phlox (May & August), 300 chrysanthemums (November), 160 balloon flowers (August), 290 creeping jenny (July) and that’s only 7 from over 50 different plants, trees and shrubs originally planted in the floricycle.

My husband and I carefully spaced out 30 snowdrops across right field last fall. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t even wrap my head around 5000 of them. I have divided the mums so often that they pop up everywhere, but we’re a far stretch from 300. And the one pinch of creeping jenny I planted two years ago will surely take over the garden in another two years. With 290 of them, you would think they’d take over in a summer – despite a ‘thin quick’ rule.

Learning this new word has been a turning point in my gardening journey. It gives me a playbook, of sorts. A guide to landscaping this strange garden design I’ve inherited. Granted, if my floricyle takes a decade before the outer shrubs finally provide the privacy I desire, the goal of my plantings will only become evident in the year 2029. It’s a very good thing my husband and I have retired from the business of relocation because this is something I want to see.

The Martin’s cared for their garden for more than 30 years (with the help of a full-time gardener I would mention) before the stock market crash left them virtually penny less. After decades of neglect, the Martin house and gardens, including the floricycle, have been restored and are now on the historical register as a museum open to the public. The effort has been well documented, which I have read and re-read for several weeks before I decided I would literally burst if I didn’t tell someone the story (besides my husband who has regrettably heard it many times at this point).

A paragraph within this document leaves a good closing argument for why gardeners everywhere still relish in creating the garden of our dreams regardless of size, shape or style:

These undertones reveal the true purpose of the garden – to come across fragrant unexpected smells, to hear the fountain bubble, to witness the birds rest, to be wounded by a thorn, to be reminded of an awesome power going on around you, and to always be pleasantly shocked by what spring unfurled overnight – even though you expect it once a year. As this garden came unto its own through the early 20th century, perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright’s (and landscape architect Walter Burley Griffin’s) greatest achievement with respect to this designed landscape is allowing the Martins to experience these sentiments amongst the trappings of what the industrial revolution ultimately gave us … the sputtering of car engines and the whizzing of air conditioners.

Darwin D. Martin (Martin Complex) Cultural Landscape Report

All Martin house and garden images are from martinhouse.org and the Martin Complex Cultural Landscape Report.