The Secret of Bulb Culture – How to Tell a Good Bulb from a Bad One

I found this sweet 1909 Boddington’s Plant catalog and Autumn Garden guide with a page titled ‘The Secret of Bulb Culture’ in the Heritage Biodiversity Library.  The pretty graphic cover caught my eye, but on closer inspection, I also learned a few things about how to tell if you have good bulb or a less good bulb ….  I’ve pulled out the tidbits of great bulb advice below — but I’ve included the whole page at the bottom so that you can read it for yourself.

Autumn bulb advice from a 1909 boddingtons plant catalog.

How to tell if you have a good bulb?

“To convince ourselves of this, all we have to do is to cut open a bulb and, if we have patience and a good magnifying glass, we can count every blossom which that bulb bad the possibility of making.”

What a great bit of information! – I had no idea that you could dissect bulbs to see how many flowers would come. Certainly you don’t want to do this with every bulb as I suspect it will ruin the bulb for growing, but I think it interesting to think that we can do a bit of consumer confidence investigation of our own and see just how well a sample bulb will perform.  I’ve generally been pretty happy with the bulbs I’ve purchased in the last few years, but I do recall  years where performance was less than stellar – I’d love to do a side by side comparison.

The Secret of Bulb Culture - How to tell a good bulb from a bad one

Does Bulb Size Matter?

“A first-size crocus bulb should measure three inches in circumference and produce four to six flowers.”

I wonder if this is still true — or if our bulbs are even bigger now – over 100 years later – and producing even more flowers.  I need to pay better attention! But suffice to say, bulb size does matter (when comparing like with like)

How can you tell a quality bulb?

“How can one tell a quality bulb? As a rule, the bigger the bulb, the more the flowers and the higher the price, but-that isn’t all! You want a bulb that is heavy for its size. It is the solid, close-grained bulb that has the hardiness to resist wet and cold; it is the loose, sappy one that falls an easy prey to disease.”

This is definitely a great tip of you have the opportunity to hold different bulbs side by side.  Go for the heavier one!

How to make bulbs perform better?

Bulbs have one weak point. They are sensitive to stagnant water. Put a little sand under each bulb, if you are in doubt, or, better still, throw out the heavy soil to the depth of two feet, put in a layer of broken bricks or stones for drainage and fill in with good soil.”

I’ve never had this trouble….but good to know – just in case.  I’ve successfully got all my bulbs in the ground – how about you?  The weather here in New England is certainly cooperating to give time for planting just a few more.

– Rochelle


images from the biodiversity heritage library  and  by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
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About Rochelle Greayer

Hi, I'm Rochelle and for 18 years I have worked as a landscape designer, author/writer, and design teacher. I've designed residential and hospitality (for hotels, restaurants, and spas) gardens across the USA and in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. After many years of teaching garden design topics in person, I launched the PITH + VIGOR Boot Camp series in early 2018. Through my blog, social media, and online courses (Garden Design Bootcamp and Planting Design Boot Camp) I aim to help homeowners learn how to confidently design and create home gardens that reflect their own personal and unique style.
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  1. Amy Renea on November 13, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    We come home in SEVEN days and I have a box of bulbs waiting for me in Pennsylvania. I am *crossing* my fingers I can get them in a week from tomorrow and they will have a little time to settle in before the ground chills too much — STAY WARM PA!

  2. Amy Renea on November 13, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    I also rather love the fact that you know a kindred gardening soul by how many ancient catalogs, books and gardening advertisements they tend to admire, hoard and share. 🙂

  3. Ruth Causen on November 13, 2015 at 11:34 pm

    The soil should cool to about 50˚ before you plant in the fall. Bulbs need fairly cool soil to start rooting
    before the really cold weather comes. Don’t hurry planting if you soil is still above 50˚.

  4. Paula Mills on November 25, 2015 at 2:13 am

    Do you have or could you get rhubarb forcing pots?

    • Rochelle on November 25, 2015 at 1:05 pm

      I am sorry, I don’t sell them.

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