By Erin Marissa Russell
As you’re shopping for tomato seeds or reading about how to care for different types of tomatoes in your garden, you’ll often see different instructions in seed catalogs for determinate and indeterminate tomato varieties. As these terms aren’t defined every time they’re used, you may have been left wondering just what they mean. We’re ready to dive in and solve the mystery of the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes.
Determinate Vs. Indeterminate Tomatoes: Botany
- Put simply, the main differences are that determinate tomatoes are bush tomatoes, while indeterminate tomato plants are vining types. Determinate, or bush, tomato plants generally grow to heights of around three or four feet tall. In contrast, indeterminate, or vining, tomato plants can reach heights between six and 20 feet tall.
- Each type of tomato plant has different types of growth habits as well. Home gardeners can tell when their determinate tomato plant has reached the maximum height it will grow to because flower clusters will emerge and open at the tips of the tomato plant’s branches. This is also where a determinate tomato plant’s fruit production occurs: at the ends of the branches. The Indeterminate tomato variety will bear fruit at different spots all along their branches.
- Determinate tomatoes differ from indeterminate varieties in the way the tomatoes mature. The tomatoes on a determinate tomato plant will all become ripe at the same time, while indeterminate types will become ripe on a staggered schedule throughout the season until cold weather puts a stop to their growth. Because determinate tomatoes ripen all at once, they tend to ripen earlier in the season than indeterminate tomatoes.
For gardeners who want to can their tomato harvest, it can be much more convenient to have a crop that all becomes ripe at once, so determinate varieties of tomatoes are a better choice for people who will be canning their tomatoes or making them into tomato sauce. Those who want a steady supply of tomatoes throughout the season to use for fresh eating, in salads or for homemade salsa tend to select indeterminate tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes also tend to have a much shorter harvest period thereby producing less fruit, while indeterminate tomatoes have a longer season, up to two or three months, thereby producing a large harvest.
Determinate Versus Indeterminate Tomatoes: Care
- Determinate tomato plants don’t grow as large as indeterminate plants, so they are sometimes grown in tomato cages but sometimes don’t need to be supported at all. Indeterminate types of tomato plants grow larger, and they tend to require support via wooden stakes.
- Because determinate tomato plants are more compact plants than indeterminate ones, they are a great choice for container growing planting in five-gallon buckets. This is a good choice for home growers who are gardening in small spaces. Indeterminate tomatoes are not normally grown in containers, they need plenty of space due to their larger size.
- Indeterminate tomato plants tend to benefit in a way determinate varieties do not from being pruned. Because indeterminate plants set fruit in spots all along the branches, pruning can force the plant to focus its energies on a smaller number of tomatoes. You wouldn’t want to prune a determinate tomato plant, since it sets fruit only at the ends of its branches. To prune an indeterminate tomato, remove all the suckers that grow from the joints in the branch up to the sucker just before the first cluster of tomatoes on the branch.
Just to be clear, not everything with tomatoes is quite as black and white as we’ve presented here. There are also semi-determinate tomato types that tend to share the characteristics of both groups.