Forecasting how global warming will affect onset of the growing season is essential for predicting terrestrial productivity, but suffers from conflicting evidence. We show that accurate estimates require ways to connect discrete observations of changing tree status (e.g., pre- vs. post budbreak) with continuous responses to fluctuating temperatures. By coherently synthesizing discrete observations with continuous responses to temperature variation, we accurately quantify how increasing temperature variation accelerates onset of growth. Application to warming experiments at two latitudes demonstrates that maximum responses to warming are concentrated in late winter, weeks ahead of the main budbreak period. Given that warming will not occur uniformly over the year, knowledge of when temperature variation has the most impact can guide prediction. Responses are large and heterogeneous, yet predictable. The approach has immediate application to forecasting effects of warming on growing season length, requiring only information that is readily available from weather stations and generated in climate models.