False Falls and Second Summers: Gardening in Unseasonable Weather

False Falls and Second Summers: Gardening in Unseasonable Weather

By Michael Jenkins

Most of us are moving into the cooler months, although summer persists in the warmer parts of North America. However, some gardeners around the region are dealing with unseasonable weather in the form of false falls, second summers/Indian summers, or just early frosts and cold snaps. While these are natural phenomena, they can be frustrating in the garden—unseasonable weather, especially over a longer period, can cause your plants to behave unseasonably. This in turn can cause damage to them when “regular” weather returns. Mitigating the effects of unseasonable weather is a challenge most of us will face at some point in our gardening lives, but thankfully there are some steps we can take to limit the problems caused by a false fall or second summer.

Let’s dig in by starting with some definitions (and a disclaimer) . . .

What is a False Fall?

False falls are especially common in the US Southeast, although they can happen in most parts of the country. Essentially, a false fall is a period of cool, dry weather (lasting anywhere from a few days to a week or two) in late summer. After the false fall passes, summer returns with full heat, humidity, and perhaps a thunderstorm or tropical storm. Fun fact: tropical storms and hurricanes can sometimes bring a false fall in their wake, with beautiful weather following the tumult of the storm.

False falls are generally not a significant problem for the garden—in most cases they slow growth a bit as the plants go partially dormant in cooler temperatures. Tropical plants and other exotics may need a bit more protection, but most garden staple plants should be able to handle a false fall with a bit of care.

Second Summers, Indian Summers . . . And a Bit of History

Related but distinct from false falls, second summers (also known as Indian summers, but more on that in a bit) are just what they sound like: a period of unseasonably warm temperatures, often with higher humidity, during the autumn season.  Like false falls, second summers can last from a few days to a week or two.

Second summers are tricker to manage than false falls. Plants that had gone dormant may start to wake up and put out new growth. When cooler temperatures return or when the frost comes, these plants can be damaged and then struggle to recover in spring.

Before we move on, let’s talk about the term “Indian summer” which is the traditional name for second summers in parts of the US and Canada. The origins of “Indian summer” seem to date back to the colonial period—settlers from the British Isles weren’t accustomed to this kind of unseasonable weather, so they associated it with the native peoples of the Americas and named it after them. Nowadays, we’re more respectful of Native American, First Nations, and Aboriginal peoples and we try to avoid terms like Indian summer. So, while you may see “Indian summer” in some older garden guides and other gardening sources, it’s probably best to stick with “second summer” when talking about it now.

Protecting Plants from Unseasonable Weather

So with that out of the way, let’s talk about protecting plants from unseasonable weather, be it a second summer, false fall, or early frost/cold snap!

If temperatures are cooling down, giving your plants some protection from the cold or chill can help mitigate the effects of unseasonable weather. Container plants can be brought inside the home or a greenhouse overnight, or just covered to protect them from the cooler temperatures. Likewise, something as simple as a tarp or blanket can protects garden beds and shrubbery from cooler temperatures—although row covers and portable greenhouses are often more efficient. For low-lying plants, an extra layer of mulch can help hold heat in the ground or garden bed and thus provide some additional protection. You can absolutely use these techniques in combination to give your plants the protection they need—gardening is about experimentation and adaptation, so don’t be afraid to think outside of the box!

Second summers can be a bit tricker. Bringing container plants inside can work if your inside space is climate-controlled. Extra watering is generally a good idea when temperatures warm up—but don’t over-saturate the ground around sensitive plants as they may get a shock when temperatures drop back to normal. Giving plants some shade can help a lot with short-term warm temperatures—moving containers to location with some sun protection for example, or using a cover to create shade over a garden bed. Mulch can help with heat mitigation, too—it blocks the sun from the soil and holds moisture in. Again, don’t be afraid to get creative and try things!

Unseasonable weather in so many forms is just another part of gardening, and learning to manage it is a chance to expand your gardening skills and your understanding of your plants and your space. If you deal with unseasonable weather and have some tips or tricks to share, let us know! Gardzen is all about community and we love to hear from you!

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