A Bit About Determinate and Indeterminate Tomatoes

red tomato cluster

Many people just starting out with tomatoes tend to buy what are known as “bush tomatoes”. These are a determinate tomato variety and they generally grow to a certain height and stop. They usually don’t require much or any staking and they produce well.

Tomatoes are a normal garden favorite as few things are tastier than a fresh garden tomato. When mommies are trying to get their children involved in the garden they find that their fussy eaters usually will accept cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, and strawberries.

Tomatoes are also relatively easy to grow, but they take up a lot of space if they are an indeterminate variety.

This is where determinate tomatoes come in. They are perfect for containers and can be working into almost any garden plan. There are two distinct types of tomato-determinate and indeterminate.

What Is The Difference Between the Two Types?

 Determinates and indeterminates have similar growing needs like light, watering, fertilizing, and yard placement. They both need about 6-8 hours of sun for example.

Both also need to be planted around 2 weeks after the last frost date. Both prefer hotter weather. For watering, you need to water pretty frequently when first transplanted and water maybe once a week thoroughly afterward. Though when I was in growing zone 7B I had to water my plants about every other day because of different factors.

Determinate

Determinate tomato plants grow into a nice compact size where they grow to about a foot tall (or anywhere between one to 5 feet) and then stop. They thicken up at the sides to get a very “bushy” look.

Some dwarf varieties grow even shorter at around 20-24 inches. The Tiny Tim tomato is one such variety. These smaller varieties are commonly grown on patios as they are well suited for container planting.

Determinate plants stop growing once they start getting fruit buds. The tomato will then have all of the fruit develop and ripen and finish all at the same time. This usually takes the plan about 2 weeks.

Indeterminate

If you have a lot of garden space you may opt for an indeterminate variety. You will need lots of space and a longer growing season. These plants get huge.

In my first year of gardening, I planted an indeterminate tomato and it grew about 11 feet tall and that was after cutting it in half mid-growing season because it was getting unruly. These types will keep growing and setting fruit until frost kills them.

The plants will bloom and make fruit throughout the whole growing season. They need to be staked or tied up in some way or they will start to break under their own weight unless allowed to grow across the yard (which I’ve done before but it generally isn’t good).

Buying Tomatoes

When you go to buy plants or seeds most garden stores will clearly label the tomatoes as being determinate or indeterminate. You can rest easy knowing you will be able to tell what you are buying before you bring it home.

I have purchased seeds before for a “wild tomato” that was supposed to be a bush type but it ended up being indeterminate. That was the only mishap I experienced, but it was a small and new seller so I’m pretty sure they have since fixed the error.

Container Gardening for Tomatoes

Both types of tomato can be grown in containers. Something I’d commonly do is buy a good compost and soil blend that came bagged and plant my indeterminate varieties directly in the bag. I didn’t have to do a lot of work and the bags were pretty cheap. I would also install a very large pole to each tomato so I could tie them off as they grew up.

The determinate variety is better suited for container gardening if you do the 5-gallon bucket method or pick up large pots from the garden store. You will have fewer headaches trying to keep the tomato under control. It will also look more attractive as honestly, I didn’t care about looks with my garden. I cared more about food output.

Container Size

The size you need depends on what tomato variety you are planting. You can get by with anything from a gallon-size container to 5 gallon.

The main consideration is if the plant needs to be staked you want enough room for that and you want a pot that gives the plant plenty of space for roots.

The fruit produced from these bush varieties will range in size from very small to very large. The “Better Bush” variety was a popular one I used to grow for being a good hamburger filler tomato during the summer months. It had large fruit perfect for slicing.

If you need container-grown plants, you will most likely be better served by determinate varieties. Some good varieties to try are (varying by growing zones):

  • Early Girl
  • Better Bush
  • Celebrity

If you decide to grow an indeterminate variety you may wish to go for the Roma or Supersweet 100. Both of these will be a mess of tangled plant growth but the Roma has one of the best taste profiles when heated and the Supersweet 100 is a tomato producing machine. I had so many tomatoes with the Supersweet I didn’t know what to do with them.

This yeah my determinate tomato of choice is Little Sicily Globe Tomato.

Pruning Tomatoes

Plants generally need to be pruned to stay bushy. You can prune down an indeterminate tomato without much damage. You do not want to prune determinate tomatoes.

You will want all the fruit you can get out of them and pruning will directly alter your yield in a negative way. They also tend to bush up naturally without pruning.

You will want to remove suckers on both types of plants. To prune a determinate tomato you will want to pinch or cut off all the suckers you find from the very bottom to the first flower cluster.

Suckers are tiny stems with leaves usually that grow between the main trunk and the main tomato stem. Removing this growth helps channel more energy into the main plant and fruit.

Staking

You don’t usually need a cage for a determinate except in the case of the varieties with larger fruit. You need to figure out a light staking method for them so you can have fruit support.

Indeterminate varieties you can either get a huge tomato cage or extremely long rods if you are planting them into the ground. They mostly just need to be tied up so their growth is up off the ground. They will get better sun, fewer critters will eat the fruit, and it is easier to keep the garden space tended.

green tomatoes

Harvesting

Determinate tomatoes are easy to tell when you need to harvest. They all ripen up at once so you get a large harvest all right then. You can dehydrate them, use them for slicers, turn them into some sort of red sauce like marinara, or you can oven-roast them and eat them paired with pita bread and cheese.

Indeterminates will just be shooting out tomatoes left and right. Generally, you want to get a feel for what the mature fruit is supposed to look like and then collect them when they are close to that general look. It is easy for red tomatoes as you just get them when they are red. Yellow varieties or green varieties are trickier.

Semi-determinate Tomatoes

Some tags will have semi-determinate on the label. This label class is trying to signal the plant has growth habits of both types of tomatoes. It is indeterminate but will grow to a smaller size.

These types typically need staking support and do have a more busy quality than regular indeterminate tomatoes.

They produce fruit over a long time period and don’t do the harvest all at once thing that determinates do.

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