determinate versus indeterminate tomatoes
Beginner Gardening - Organic Gardening

The Ultimate Guide to Determinate Versus Indeterminate Tomatoes

A guide to determinate versus indeterminate tomato plants: what’s the difference between these two varieties, how to know what you’re buying, and how to care for them.

A Tomato-y Journey

It was only until recently that I started growing indeterminate tomato plants and learned about them. I always grew determinate tomato plants and have always loved growing them. Three years ago, I was researching tomato plants and stumbled upon some varieties I wanted to try to grow. In the description, it explained that they were indeterminate tomato plants, but I didn’t know what that meant. So I dug some more into what they were and wanted to share what I’ve learned about growing both.

What is so great about growing your own vegetables and fruit are all the different varieties you have access to!

Tomatoes have so many different varieties and come in different colors contrary to what we normally see in stores. There are red, pink, yellow, purple, brown, orange, white, green, multicolored, and striped tomates. Each variety has an interesting name to go along with it like – Cherokee Green, Green Giant, Red Zebra, Lillian’s Red Kansas Paste, Sweet Sue, Green Zebra, Rosella Rose, and the Speckled Roman. All have their own set of characteristics, tolerances in terms of growing environments, the list goes on.If you can’t already tell, I’m a bit obsessed with tomatoes.

This post is all about determinate versus indeterminate tomatoes.

History of Tomatoes

Tomatoes weren’t the hot item they are today. At one point in history, they were deemed as poisonous. In the United States, 

“Some testified to suffering a peculiar condition of the stomach, piles, and tender, bleeding gums, and loose teeth, all from eating tomatoes,” (LeHoullier, p. 18).

 LeHoullier, Craig. Epic Tomatoes: How to Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time. Storey Publishing, LLC, 2014. Accessed 1 February 2022.

It is said that Mayans and other MesoAmerican people were the first to domesticate this once wild plant. From there the rest is history as it made its way to all parts of the world. Now they adorn all sorts of dishes – pizza, pasta sauce, sandwiches, to name a few. They can be enjoyed all sorts of ways – canned, marinated, fresh, baked, sundried. The list goes on.

What is a Determinate Tomato Plant?

Determinate tomato plants, which include bush varieties, are a smaller type of plant  in comparison to indeterminate tomato plants. They average about 4 to 5 feet tall. Once they reach a certain height, they’ll stop growing. Their fruit will also mature earlier and will ripen simultaneously. Although determinates have a shorter harvest period in comparison to determinates, we’ve had plants that have produced all the way up until September.

How to care for a determinate tomato plant

  • There are two types of determinant plants: vining and bush.

    Bush varieties have sturdier stems and may not need support. However, vining varieties will need some sort of support like a tomato cage or stake.
    • If staking, don’t tie too tightly to the stake.
  • Remove any suckers that grow on your plant. This will help the plant focus its energy on the main shoots and fruit production.
  • Consistently water your plant, but don’t overdo it. Too much watering can cause the fruit to split. A practice I’ve implemented before a big rain is to harvest tomatoes that are either almost ripe to avoid splitting. The tomato can ripen the rest of the way on your counter.
  • Water your plants in the morning. (This is true for your whole garden though). Watering in the afternoon can cause your plants to burn, while in the evening may not allow the plants enough time to absorb the water.
  • Water around the base of the plant and try not to water its leaves to prevent fungal leaf diseases.
determinate tomato varieties

What are the most common determinate varieties

The most common varieties of determinates are:

  • Early Girl (harvest in 50-60 days)
  • San Marzano
  • Roma
  • Big Boy
  • Rutgers
  • Sweet Baby Girl Cherry
  • Amish paste

What is an Indeterminate Tomato Plant?

Unlike determinate tomato plants that will reach a certain height and then stop growing, determinates continue to grow….and grow… and grow! In fact, they can reach at least 10 feet tall! In contrast to determinate tomato plants, indeterminates have a longer growing season but start to produce fruit later in the growing season. They can produce fruit up until the first frost. It’s ideal to have both determinates and indeterminates, especially if you plan on canning any of your harvest.

How to care for a indeterminate tomato plant

Since indeterminate tomato plants grow really tall, they’ll need extra support. Supports should be at least 5 feet tall to supply ample support.

What are the most common indeterminate varieties

  • Lemon Boy
  • Brandywine
  • Super Sweet 100

How to Know What You’re Buying: Seeds and Seedlings

The most helpful way to know about what variety you have is when you’re buying seeds and/or seedlings. When buying seeds, look for the description of that particular variety. It should note whether it’s a determinate or indeterminate plant. Seedlings should have a similar description on the tag. It’s not possible to differentiate between the two types when they are seedlings by evaluating their height. That will not be apparent until it has grown.

How to distinguish between a determinate vs indeterminate tomato plant

As the plants get bigger, it’ll be easier to distinguish between the two types. Check for the following:

  1. Check the height.
    • Determinate tomato plants will eventually stop growing and reach a determined height of about 4 to 5 feet tall.
    •  Indeterminates will continuously grow. They may not be fully grown by the time frost comes around. They can grow up to at least 10 feet tall and will need the appropriate support. Without proper support, branches can split and break from the weight, and whole limbs can die.
  2. Check the leaves.
    • Determinate tomato plants have clustering leaves that cluster and have a ‘fuller’, ‘bushier’ appearance.
    • Indeterminates have spaced out leaves and will look like a long vine.
  3. Check the flowers and fruit production.
    • Determinates will produce flowers all at once and produce fruit earlier in the growing season and within a shorter time span.
    • Indeterminates will produce flowers and fruit later in the season and continuously produce thereafter until there is frost.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of having these varieties?

Like anything, there are advantages and disadvantages to both types, but this may depend entirely on what your preferences are and how you’ll be using your tomatoes. Some characteristics are listed under advantages and disadvantages to take into consideration and why you’re growing them.

Advantages of Determinates:

  • There is less maintenance since they are smaller plants. They will require some support, but less so than an indeterminate.
  • They produce a lot of fruit almost all at once which makes them great options for canning. For example, having an abundance of San Marzano tomatoes will be great for canning tomato sauce.
  • Commonly harvested earlier in the season, however, I’ve had plants go to late September/ early October, depending on the weather and when they were planted.

Disadvantages of Determinates:

  • They produce a lot of fruit all at once and do not have a continuous crop. 
  • There may be less plants since they will take up more space due to their bushier, fuller appearance.

Advantages of Indeterminates:

  • They have a continuous crop later in the season and do not produce fruit all at once. It’ll give you some time to eat your harvest a bit at a time.
  • They produce a LOT of fruit, but again they are spread out. They will keep pumping out tomatoes until frost.
  • You can have more plants since they are more compact compared to bush varieties.

Disadvantages of Indeterminates:

  • It’ll be a longer wait for tomatoes. If you’re eager for tomatoes earlier in the season, you may want to plant determinate tomato plants.
  • They need proper support since they grow very tall.

Should I plant both types of tomato plants?

This is all about personal preference and what you plan on doing with the tomatoes. I have had determinate plants, but have never canned them. (That’s one of the things on my list to learn!) We were able to give away a lot of the tomatoes we couldn’t eat – we’re talking shopping bags full of tomatoes. We’ll be planting both in our garden in case you’re curious what we’ll be doing. Not only will we be able to can them, but we can have a longer season of tomatoes with varieties ripening early in the season and then later in the season.

Other Tomato Terminology to Familiarize Yourself With

  • Early ripening variety
    An ‘early’ variety is one that produces fruit in less than 70 days, with many in as little as 50 to 68 days. This is considerably quick in comparison to varieties which take quite longer. Such varieties can take up to 80 to 100 days.
  • “Slicer” – a slicer is a larger variety of tomato that is usually big and round. It is good for cutting into larger slices for burgers, sandwiches, and subs.
  • Hybrid
    Hybrids are varieties cross-pollinated to produce a specific outcome. An example of this is producing a variety that is more heat tolerant. They are often confused with genetically modified varieties (also known as GMOs). GMOs can’t be sold to the general public for residential gardening. So you will never find any GMOs seeds or seedlings on the shelf, for example in Home Depot. GMOs can only be sold to commercial farmers, per Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.
  • Heirloom
    An heirloom is a documented heritage variety that has been passed down from generation to generation. An heirloom must be open-pollinated and maintain its original traits from one generation to the next.
  • “Suckers” – is a shoot that sprouts out between the stem and a branch of the plant. They do not harm the plant and can grow fruit as well, they’re generally gotten rid of by the gardener. Suckers draw, or suck, energy away from the main stem of the plant. By removing a sucker, the plant can focus its energy on growth and overall production of fruit on the plant as a whole.

This post was all about determinate versus indeterminate tomatoes.

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