What’s the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes?
The growth habit of tomato plants is often described as determinate or indeterminate. But if you’re not familiar with growing tomatoes, then it might get confusing when you’re reading those descriptions.
So let’s talk about not only how determinate tomatoes are different from indeterminate tomatoes, but what it really means in terms of your gardening experience.
Determinate tomato varieties
Determinate tomatoes have a predetermined lifespan. They are generally smaller and bushier than indeterminates. Determinate tomatoes will set and ripen all their fruit at once and then die.
Commercial growers love determinate tomatoes because they can run through and harvest the tomatoes, plant, and all once they’re done. Home canners enjoy that they get a large crop all at once to consolidate canning chores.
Because of the way they grow, they have few leaves compared to fruit. This means determinates tend to have less flavor than indeterminates, but there are still plenty of tasty tomatoes that grow on determinate plants.
Determinate tomato plants are sometimes called bush tomatoes. Their bushy, as opposed to vining habit, makes them better suited to containers than indeterminates.
Because bush tomato varieties set a determinate amount of fruit, pruning is not recommended as any limbs removed will decrease the amount of fruit you get off the plant. This makes them a good choice for beginners and anyone who doesn’t want to tend to a large unruly plant.
Choose a determinate tomato plant if:
- Want a large crop to ripen at once (for example, to can tomato sauce)
- Growing in containers
- Want a lower maintenance tomato plant that you don’t need to prune and tie up all season
Indeterminate tomato varieties
On the other hand, indeterminate tomatoes are massive vines and will continue to grow and produce new fruit until they are killed by disease or frost. Left to their own devices, they can become massive plants sprawling over 7 feet long and wide.
They produce lots of side shoots and each one could be its own plant. We like to tame ours by pruning them down to 1-3 main branches, but you certainly don’t have to do that.
To keep them manageable, pruning and tying up will be a continuous task throughout the season for indeterminate plants, but the tradeoff is that indeterminate plants tend to make more flavorful fruit.
Most tomatoes are indeterminates.
An indeterminate tomato plant requires:
- A very large container or at least 4 square feet in your garden
- A mechanism of support
- Some pruning
You may see some tomatoes labeled semi-determinate. It’s harder to define semi-determinate because there isn’t an official agreement on what makes them semi-determinate.
They could be large determinate plants meaning they grow larger than 5 feet and are not as bushy, but they set and ripen all their fruit then die. Or they could be small indeterminate plants, meaning they grow until frost, but they have a more bushy habit.
If a tomato variety meets all of your requirements otherwise, don’t concern yourself over it being a semi-determinate.
Dwarf and micro-dwarf tomatoes
Dwarf and micro-dwarf tomatoes are a fairly new to mainstream tomato growing community. In fact, the variety for dwarf and micro tomatoes has only been expanded since 2006.
Most dwarf and micro tomatoes behave like indeterminates in that they grow and produce until frost or disease kills them, although some behave like determinates and stop producing after a time.
- Dwarf tomatoes are characterized by a short stature, often about 3 feet tall. They tend to have thick and sturdy stems and thick crinkled leaves. You have lots of options for color and fruit size with dwarf tomatoes since the dwarf tomato project.
Dwarf tomatoes can struggle in heat and humidity, but they are great options for growing in containers.
- Micro-dwarves are much smaller than dwarf tomatoes, often maxing out at about a foot tall. Micros can even be grown indoors as the plant can spend its entire life in a 4 inch pot. They are also suited to growing in hydroponic kits on your kitchen counter.
Micros are pretty much the most adorable tomato plant you’ve ever seen, but they’re also known for growing and producing very quickly. Some varieties boast tomatoes forming on the plant in under 30 days from seed.
Choosing the right tomatoes for your garden
When you’re trying to decide which tomato varieties to grow, determinate vs indeterminate tomato plants are an important consideration.
- For container gardening, you might lean toward a dwarf or determinate plant.
- If you’re looking for something low maintenance, then determinate plants are definitely a better option.
- If you want tomatoes off the same plant from July through September, you’d better choose an indeterminate plant.
Determinate vs indeterminate tomatoes…what is your preference?
Let me know in the comments below!