Determinate tomatoes vs indeterminate tomatoes: if you’re going to grow “the love apple,” you need to know the difference. It’s not just plant nursery workers or experts who throw around the terms. “Determinate” and “indeterminate” pop up in gardening conversations everywhere.
Plus, tomatoes are not the only crops with the determinate vs indeterminate distinction. They’re joined by potatoes, cucumbers, and beans. Different varieties of each of these veggies are classified as determinate or indeterminate ... and in some cases, semi-determinate. What’s the difference … and why does it matter?
The difference in determinate tomatoes vs indeterminate tomatoes is not flavor, color, or size. It’s about growth habit.
Determinates are sometimes referred to as “bush tomatoes.” Indeterminates are often called “vining tomatoes.” But there’s more to it than the shape a tomato plant grows into. The difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes is in the tips. Branch tips, that is.
A determinate tomato’s branch tips end in flower clusters. A determinate tomato’s flowers bloom roughly all at once. Determinate tomatoes grow to a certain height and then stop. Their end game is “determined.” Because of that, these types of tomatoes produce fruit for a few weeks and then production fades out.
Thanks to a limited growth habit and limited production window, determinates grow only so high and stop. They are the “shorties” in the tomato world. Of course, a short tomato plant is a relative term, but plenty of determinate varieties are low-lying bushes.
One benefit of growing determinates? Since their fruit ripens within a short time frame, you can harvest large amounts of determinate tomatoes all at once for canning, drying, freezing, and making tomato sauce or salsa.
An indeterminate’s growing tips are capped by leaves. Indeterminate tomatoes never set flowers on the tips of their top branches, but only on lateral ones. It’s not unusual to see an indeterminate tomato plant that’s got flowers, baby fruit, and mature fruit all at the same time. Plus, indeterminate varieties grow and produce tomatoes throughout the growing season, often until frost. Their last harvest date is “indetermined.” (Poor grammar, but you get the point.)
As for height … indeterminate tomatoes continue to grow taller and taller and taller until the end of the season.
Which means one advantage of growing indeterminate tomatoes is that you can pick fresh fruit all season long.
Semi-determinate tomatoes have a determinate habit – bushy and short-vined. However, not all semi-determinate branch tips end in blossoms. A semi-determinate crop can set a large portion of its fruit early in the season but continue to flower and produce tomatoes until frost. That means many semi-determinates are technically indeterminate plants.
Most home gardeners cannot tell determinate from indeterminate tomatoes with a glance – at least when seedlings are just sprouting. You may need a little help.
But as plants mature, you can use your mighty powers of observation to identify determinate tomatoes vs indeterminate tomatoes. Check the tips of the stems. If there are flowers on the tips – all of the tips – then the plant is likely a determinate tomato. If there are leaves on some of the tips and blossoms on some of the tips, then you’ve probably got an indeterminate.
Once you become familiar with specific tomato varieties and grow them year after year in your garden, then you understand their characteristics and can spout off, “Romas? Oh, they’re determinates. But my Brandywines are indeterminate. I’m going to enjoy them until frost.”
Whether you’re growing determinates or indeterminates, prepare the soil with lots of organic matter before planting.
And and water your new tomato seedlings regularly for 7-10 days to help them get established.
But spacing? Give indeterminates more room. They keep growing all season, so accommodate them. And if you have to choose between staking or caging determinates or indeterminates, then give indeterminates support. They need it more because they simply can’t stop adding branches, leaves, blossoms, and fruit.
If you want. Keep in mind that you needn’t prune any tomatoes, period – either determinate tomatoes vs indeterminate tomatoes. But determinates will grow only to a certain point and then shut down. If nothing else, prune determinates’ lower branches at the beginning of the season to keep leaves off the soil and prevent diseases.
It’s a good idea to prune indeterminate tomatoes, especially by eliminating the suckers – those branches that grow out of the tomato’s main stem, just above a leaf branch or side stem (in the “crotch”). By pruning, you’ll get more fruit and bigger fruit.
Alternatively, you can use a simple tomato trellis to train your indeterminates and give them support.
Again, if you like. Staking helps to support tomato plants. And determinates can get quite bushy. By staking them or setting them in tomato cages, you help keep plants from breaking in windy or stormy weather. Plus, staking provides more air flow in between leaves and branches which encourages ripening and prevents the spread of diseases.
Indeterminate tomatoes are more in need of staking than indeterminates. Remember, they grow, bloom, and produce fruit all season long. It’s not unusual for a healthy indeterminate tomato plant to grow to be 10 feet or even 15 feet tall.
For your indeterminates, choose tomato stakes or tomato cages at least 5-6 feet tall. If needed, you can purchase tomato cages that have extensions.
Which types of tomatoes you choose – determinate tomatoes vs indeterminate tomatoes – depends on your circumstances and how you plan to use them.
If you have a short growing season, determinates allow you to get the “most bang for your buck.” That is, determinate tomatoes produce the largest number of their crop in a short window of time. Determinate tomatoes are also a favorite among gardeners who want to harvest large amounts of tomatoes all at once for canning or making tomato sauce.
If you have a long growing season, then indeterminates are a good bet. While indeterminate tomatoes may produce smaller amounts of fruit, they do so consistently until cold weather and frost shut them down. You can count on these plants to provide fresh tomatoes for salads, sandwiches, and fresh dishes from early summer well into fall.
Most gardeners grow both determinate tomatoes and indeterminate tomatoes. Maybe you should, too.
More about tomato varieties
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