By Erin Marissa Russell
As you’re shopping for tomato seeds or reading about how to care for tomatoes in your garden, you’ll often see different instructions 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 Versus Indeterminate Tomatoes: Botany
- Put simply determinate tomatoes are bush tomato plants, 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.
- A gardener can tell when their determinate tomato plant has reached the maximum height it will grow to because flowers will emerge and open at the tips of the tomato plant’s branches. This is also where a determinate tomato plant’s fruit will appear: at the ends of branches. Indeterminate tomato plants set 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 tomatoes will become ripe on a staggered schedule throughout the season until frost 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 people who will be canning their tomatoes or making them into sauce tend to choose determinate tomatoes for their gardens. Those who want tomatoes to become ripe at different times in the season to use for slicing or in salads tend to select indeterminate tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes also tend to have a much shorter harvest period, while the harvest for indeterminate tomatoes can go on for two or three months and tends to be a larger overall harvest.
Determinate Versus Indeterminate Tomatoes: Care
- Determinate tomato plants don’t grow as large as indeterminate plants, so they are sometimes grown in cages but sometimes don’t need to be supported at all. Indeterminate tomato plants grow larger, and they tend to require support via staking.
- Because determinate tomato plants are smaller than indeterminate ones, they are sometimes grown in containers or five-gallon buckets. Indeterminate tomatoes are not normally grown in containers 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.