By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
There is nothing quite like a home-grown juicy, sweet ripe tomato. Tomatoes are classified by their growth habit and fall into the categories of determinate and indeterminate tomato varieties. Once you know the characteristics, it’s easy to tell which tomatoes are determinate and which are indeterminate.
Duration and form of growth are the main ways to tell the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. Which type you choose will depend upon the use, available space and the length of your growing season.
How to Distinguish a Determinate from an Indeterminate Tomato
There are so many varieties of tomato, and the choices can be overwhelming. One of the first things to consider is the length of your growing season.
- Determinate tomato varieties tend to ripen early.
- Indeterminate tomato varieties will have a longer growth period and can produce fruit until frost arrives.
The selection of tomato will also depend upon the use you have for the fruit. If you will be canning, a determinate type, which ripens all around the same time, is useful. If you want fruit throughout the growing season, then an indeterminate tomato is best.
Determinate vs. Indeterminate Tomatoes
The form the tomato plant takes is a big clue as to which tomato variety you grow. A comparison of determinate vs indeterminate tomatoes shows one is a vine and one is bushy.
The determinate tomato plant is often grown in a cage or even without support, as it has a more compact shape. The determinate tomato varieties also produce most of their fruit on the terminal end.
The indeterminate tomato varieties have much longer stem growth, which continues to grow until cold weather arrives. They require staking and tying onto a structure to keep the fruit off the ground. This type sets fruit along the stem.
How to Distinguish a Determinate from an Indeterminate Tomato
To learn how to distinguish a determinate from an indeterminate tomato, check the shoot formation.
- The determinate forms stop their shoot production once flowers form on the ends.
- Indeterminate tomato varieties will form flowers along the sides of the shoots but they continue to grow until weather conditions are no longer favorable.
This is the main difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. The formation of new leaves at branch areas is a characteristic of both types of plants and doesn’t help in distinguishing the forms. Just to confuse things a bit, there are also tomato forms that are semi-determinate and fall between the two main varieties in growth habit.
Differences in Care
Determinate tomato varieties produce the early season fruits and are generally set out earlier in the season. Determinate tomatoes are usually smaller and can be grown in containers.
The indeterminate tomato varieties span the sandwich and out of your hand types of fruit. Indeterminate types usually need a garden bed or larger space to spread out. In addition, indeterminate plants can be pruned to just a couple of stems. Remove all the suckers up to the one just below the first flower cluster. This will promote the formation of the stem and flush new flower buds for better fruiting.
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Difference Between Determinate and Indeterminate Tomatoes
A lot of gardeners wonder if there is a big difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. As it turns out, there are several key differences, each of which will affect the way you care for the plants.
So, what is the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes? Determinate tomatoes are shorter, growing to heights of 4 to 6 feet, while indeterminate tomatoes grow to 7 feet or taller. Determinate tomatoes produce fruit during a much shorter time window of 4 to 5 weeks, compared to 2 to 3 months or longer for indeterminate tomatoes. Finally, determinate tomatoes do not need tall stakes for support, as indeterminate tomatoes do.
Of course, the way you care for your tomato plants will depend on which types you are growing.
In this article, we’ll talk about the differences between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. We’ll also get into how you can tell them apart if you don’t remember what you planted, or if you get volunteer tomato plants.
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 inches 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 vs Indeterminate Tomatoes
Determinate Tomatoes – These tomato plants are smaller, bush tomatoes, that stop growing around 3-4 feet tall.
They bloom and produce their fruit all at once and after the first harvest the plant is done producing and will start to decline.
This type of tomato variety is favored by commercial farmers because they are smaller in size which means they can grow more plants in one area and also because the fruit can all be harvested at once.
After the first harvest, commercial farmers will typically use succession planting to have more harvests throughout the season.
This type of tomato can also be a good choice for a home gardener who wants a large harvest all at once for canning.
Indeterminate Tomatoes – These tomato plants continue to grow and produce fruits throughout the entire growing season until the plants are killed by a frost.
They often will need tomato cages or some kind of support since they have potential to grow huge.
Many of your most common tomato varieties are indeterminate.
Then there are also semi-determinate tomato plants which are smaller and more compact than indeterminate tomato varieties but will continue to produce fruit all season long, unlike determinate varieties.
This type of tomato plant is great for container gardening because they are smaller in size but will continue producing tomatoes all season.
If you have a small area and want to plant varieties that will grow great in containers, check out these heirlooms that grow best in containers.
If you’re looking for high-quality grow bags for sale, check out this grow bag collection at Bootstrap Farmer!
Determinate Tomato Varieties
Indeterminate Tomato Varieties
- Better Boy
- Cherokee Purple Heirloom
- Early Girl
- Super Sweet 100
Semi-Determinate Tomato Varieties
- Inca Jewels
- Litt’l Bites Tiny Cherries
- Tasmanian Chocolate
- Super Bush
Of course there are many more of each type but those are just a few!
Best Types for Containers
If you’re going to be growing your tomatoes in pots you’ll be best off planting either semi-determinate varieties or determinate varieties.
Both are smaller in size and so they won’t get out of control and outgrow the pot.
Just be sure to keep in mind that determinate types will have one big harvest in a short amount of time and semi-determinate types will produce all season.
If you’d like some ideas check out my article Best Heirlooms for Containers.
Best Types for In Ground Planting
If you have space in the ground to plant you can plant any variety you’d like depending on your purpose.
Indeterminate types can get very big and will require support of some kind such as tomato cages or a trellis that you can tie your tomatoes to with tomato twine.
Determinate varieties will only produce one big crop but are great if you are planning on needing one big batch of tomatoes to can.
Then semi-determinate varieties will grow smaller and take up less space, but continue producing fruit all season.
The Difference Between Determinate And Indeterminate Tomatoes
When it comes to determinate vs. indeterminate tomatoes, both can be packed full of flavor and nutrition.
And, both are perfectly fine to grow by themselves – or together in the same garden.
Choosing which of the two tomato types is best comes down to how the tomatoes will be used.
How you use your tomatoes is a big part of which tomato type is best.
And as you will see, in many cases, it makes good sense to plant both types.
With that said, let’s take an in-depth look at indeterminate and determinate tomatoes.
Determinate tomatoes are varieties that bloom, fruit and mature their entire crop all at a specific time.
These types of tomatoes will bloom during the same time-frame, fruit around same time, and finally, ripen their fruit during the same time period as well.
The Roma is a determinate tomato variety which produces all of its harvest during one time period.
And when they are done, they are done.
Determinate’s can produce a big harvest, but over a compact period of time. For most varieties, that time frame is usually two to three weeks.
Determinate varieties often require more robust tomato stakes and cages to support their heavy fruit load.
There are many determinate varieties that are wonderful for fresh eating. Just keep in mind that the harvest is for a very limited time.
But for those who like to can or preserve, determinate tomatoes are a great choice.
They are the perfect way to get a big harvest, and can and preserve all at once.
They can also be a great choice for those looking to make large batches of salsa, tomato sauce, or chili and tomato soup.
Determinate tomatoes can also be planted at staggered times. This allows for big harvests, but at different times of the season.
Two great examples of prolific determinate tomatoes are the Roma Tomato and Celebrity Tomato.
Both produce and ripen abundant crops over a two to three week time frame. And they are both perfect canning and preserving.
Indeterminate tomatoes continue to grow, bloom and produce throughout an entire season.
And they do so until the first hard frost or freeze finally takes them out.
Indeterminate tomatoes like this Genovese continue to produce until the first frost.
Indeterminate tomatoes constant production make them a great choice for those who love eating fresh tomatoes all summer long.
Many indeterminate varieties, like Brandywine and San Marzanno, are incredible for canning as well.
But remember, with indeterminate varieties, the harvest is spread out over an entire summer.
Cherry tomatoes can be found in both indeterminate and determinate varieties.
That means you may need to can or preserve in smaller batches. Or, perhaps grow more plants for larger single harvests.
Heirloom vs. Indeterminate Tomatoes
One final note – the term indeterminate is often confused as being identical to heirloom.
Heirloom refers to the quality of seed being open-pollinated. It does not refer to a plant’s growth habits.
So when it comes to determinate vs. indeterminate tomatoes, remember both can be found as heirloom varieties.
For more great tomato info, check out our article : The Secret To Planting Tomatoes
This Is My Garden is a garden website created by gardeners, publishing two articles every week, 52 weeks a year. This article may contain affiliate links.
A Pretty, Bountiful Crop
Fun and easy to grow on vigorous vines, these bite-sized gems make a pretty, bountiful crop. And they’re perfect for a healthy snack – a win/win veggie!
For small decks or patio gardens, choose the compact, determinate varieties. And where they have more room to grow, select indeterminate ones – but remember to provide supports like cages or trellises when you plant.
Whatever you choose, there’s something suitable for every location in our collection of the best cherry tomatoes to plant in your garden.
Tell us about your favorites in the comments below. And for more tomato know-how, check out these guides next:
© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via Burpee, Eden Brothers, and True Leaf Market. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
About Lorna Kring
A writer, artist, and entrepreneur, Lorna is also a long-time gardener who got hooked on organic and natural gardening methods at an early age. These days, her vegetable garden is smaller to make room for decorative landscapes filled with color, fragrance, art, and hidden treasures. Cultivating and designing the ideal garden spot is one of her favorite activities – especially for gathering with family and friends for good times and good food (straight from the garden, of course)!