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The Difference Between Determinate and Indeterminate Tomatoes

determinate tomatoes

Determinate tomatoes.

There are probably more varieties of tomatoes than anyone would want to count. Actually, if you take a quick count in one of your seed catalogs, you may easily find over 75. Which variety to choose? Decisions, decisions.

There are two basic types of tomatoes, and which one you want depends in part on your needs.

The shorter, bush type tomatoes are called determinate tomatoes. They normally don’t need to be supported, though it won’t hurt. They shouldn’t be pruned, and will only grow to a height of 3 or 4 feet, making them easier to care for. Determinate tomato plants will produce most of their fruit in a short period of time, often within weeks. These tomatoes are good for those who want a lot of fruit to ‘put up’, for gardeners with a shorter growing season or those growing in containers, and for gardeners who want to free up some space for succession planting. Most determinate types are hybrids, though there are a number of heirlooms to choose from as well.

We often get asked “Why did my tomatoes suddenly stop producing?” Well, unless they have been subjected to very hot weather, it’s usually because they are determinate plants. If they are short and you got a lot of tomatoes, chances are they are that’s the reason.

sungold tomatoes

'Sungold' indeterminate tomatoes.

Taller and vining indeterminate tomatoes are just the opposite. They will need to be supported and are better off pruned. Indeterminates can easily grow over 6 feet tall. They will produce less fruit at a time, but over a longer period. On these types of plants you’ll see flowers as well as different stages of fruit development throughout the season; in fact they don’t stop growing until frost. You’re not going to want these if you intend to grow tomatoes in a container. Indeterminate varieties are better for those gardeners who just want a few fresh tomatoes throughout the week and over a longer period of time. Most heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate, the way nature intended. Many tomato connoisseurs would argue that heirloom tomatoes, and especially indeterminate varieties, are the best tasting.

That could very well be true. I can say from experience that the indeterminate heirloom 'Sungold' was by far the best-tasting cherry tomato we ever grew. It also tried to take over the garden, growing easily to 8 feet tall and quickly out of control, attaching itself to other tomatoes and anything else it could find. It also dropped enough of its fruit that I know we will be digging up young ‘volunteer’ plants come spring. That’s all right by us!

Gardening Jones is a master gardener in Pennsylvania. Learn more
Order the Petite Patio Garden Seed Collection, which includes seed of Super Bush Tomatoes, perfect for growing in a container.

Order Seeds for a Rainbow Kitchen Garden, which includes seeds of 'Garden Candy' cherry tomatoes.

Keep your garden tasks organized with The Vegetable Gardener's Handbook, which outlines chores from week to week.