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False spring | What is it?

Published on September 9th 2021
A close up of a flower
It may come as a surprise to some, but the occurrence of false springs is a well-known phenomenon. What is a false spring, you might ask? Well, that is what this article is about! Learning more about false springs will help you gauge when not to move plants outside and when to start sowing.

Frequently ask questions

What is a false spring?
False spring is a weather phenomenon where an unseasonably warm spell occurs amid otherwise cold weather (or frost appears immediately after). The warm spell jumpstarts bud break on trees, while the cold damages the new foliage and/or blooms.
Budbreak: The appearance of green tissue at active nodes on a branch. It can also apply to the appearance of blossoms.
Budbreak is easy to spot on both trees and shrubs. Photo by Munyog on Pixabay.
Are spring freezes normal?
Yes (in certain areas), it has played a dominant role in determining plant species range. What is not normal, however, is the advancement of bud burst and freeze dates. Trees are budding earlier, but freeze dates are lagging. In other words, you have buds before your last cold/freeze dates.
How do false springs affect trees?
Studies on European trees suggest that refoliation after a freeze can be delayed by 16-38 days. The damaged trees are more susceptible to disease and tend to produce less fruit.
A hand holding a small bird perched on a tree branch
Does it affect all plants equally?
No, some plants are more sensitive to the increase in temperature and will bud out early. Some will leaf out or start producing flowers within a week or two, while slower cultivars will take longer. The drop-off after initiating the process (new leaf/bloom formation) can be detrimental to further development.
A close up of a flower

Frost Tolerant | Perennials

A close up of a flower

Frost Tolerant | Perennials

Does climate change affect it?
The short answer is yes. Climate change is an ongoing process that is continually developing. It affects large weather systems, and as we know, one weather system affects different areas to different degrees. Some get more snow, while others get a lot of rain. Conversely, some may experience a longer false spring while it passes others by.
snow on a branch
Image by Lutz Peter on Pixabay.

What should I do?

Some areas will carry the brunt of the onslaught and it is best to stay on top of what is happening in your town. When temperatures spike in months that are normally classed as winter (i.e. August), try and wait a couple more weeks before making any major shifts.
Here is a list of tips to help you along:
  • Refrain from early in-ground sowing.
  • Do not water two days before a predicted frost.
  • Keep tropical plants inside until well into spring.
  • Refrain from fertilising too early unless your plants are protected.
  • Protect trees against frost.
If you want to learn more about frost protection, see the article below:
frosted leaf
Image by Rethinktwice on paxabay.

Can my plant be saved?

If a tree drops blooms or foliage during a freeze cycle, it will most likely push out a second weaker flush after some time (16-38 days subject to the tree being alive). Trees unaccustomed to low temperatures can suffer internal cellular damage that is hard to see and will reduce their vigour in subsequent years. A damaged tree or plant has less foliage and will not require additional nutrients at that point in time, so laying off the fertiliser is a good start.
If you are worried about the plant surviving, try propagation or more intensive care as discussed in the articles below.
Spring is the best time to propagate and create backups for just such an occasion. Everyone gets caught off-guard sometimes and it allows us to grow as gardeners.

True spring always comes along to brighten the moment.

A close up of a plant
Augspurger CK. 2013. Reconstructing patterns of temperature, phenology, and frost damage over 124 years: Spring damage risk is increasing. Ecology 94:41–50.
Basler D, Korner C. 2012. Photoperiod sensitivity of bud burst in 14 temperate forest tree species. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 165:73–81
Chen X, Hu B, Yu R. 2005. Spatial and temporal variation of phenological growing season and climate change impacts in temperate eastern China. Global Change Biology 11: 1118–1130.
Chmielewski FM, Rotzer T. 2001. Response of tree phenology to climate change across Europe. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 108: 101–112

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