When you are planning a tomato garden, one of the first things to consider is whether to grow determinate or indeterminate varieties. This may sound foreign to you, but most seed packets will denote which type each tomato is.
In this article, I will discuss in depth the difference between determinate vs indeterminate tomatoes. I’ll cover what distinguishes the two, the pros and cons of each, and how plant care differs based on which type you are growing.
What is the Difference?
So, what is the technical difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes?
Indeterminate tomatoes grow indefinitely, or to an “undetermined” size, producing fruits on an ongoing basis. Also called vining tomatoes, they will continually grow larger and produce more fruits until cold weather kills the plant. These tomato plants can grow to be very tall, and are commonly trellised on tall stakes or long strings.
Some benefits of indeterminate tomatoes are the ongoing productivity and the tall and slender shape. They do, however, require more frequent pruning and training to grow as desired.
The taller shape can also be space-prohibitive in some growing spaces, like containers or small beds. However, the more spaced-out and regular harvests make indeterminate tomato plants great for daily use and snacking.
Determinate tomatoes grow to a certain “determined” size, stop growing, and produce all flowers and fruits at once. Depending on the variety and growing conditions, the plants may produce a second wave of fruits, but will usually die shortly after harvest.
These tomatoes are usually preferred for container growing thanks to a shorter height and bushier shape. Determinate varieties can be a bit more sprawling, however, and require a different pruning method than indeterminate types.
Since determinate varieties produce harvests in a shorter period of time, they are a great choice if you plan to preserve, can, or make sauce with your tomatoes. Determinate plants will leave you with a large quantity of ripe tomatoes all at once, so you’ll have to be ready!
With the basic differences understood, let’s get started on how to best care for each tomato type. Since the two have very different genetic instructions, we must cater to them properly to get the best, healthiest plants and harvests.
Which is Easier to Grow?
If you are trying to decide which type of tomato to have in your garden, you should consider where you will be growing. Container growing is different than growing in the ground, so my recommendation is different for each.
In short, indeterminate tomatoes will grow best when planted in an in-ground or raised garden bed, while determinate varieties are better suited for container growing. Indeterminate varieties should be trained to grow on a trellis, which can be difficult (though not impossible) to accomplish in a container plant.
This is the reason that some determinate tomato varieties are called “patio tomatoes,” thanks to their smaller size. They will work well when grown in a pot on the porch. They are also commonly known as “dwarf tomato” varieties.
Neither indeterminate nor determinate tomatoes are easier or harder to grow. However, you should select varieties that will best fit in to your specific garden environment.
Growing Indeterminate Tomatoes
Now, while neither type is more difficult to grow, I do have a preferred type to have in the garden. That would be the indeterminates.
In my opinion, indeterminate tomatoes are the most exciting to grow. I train the plants to grow on a single, central vine that can easily grow to be 8′ or taller in a single season!
To top it off, the regular harvests are a daily reward for the hard work that goes into the garden. Let’s discuss some of the basics that are involved when growing indeterminate tomatoes.
One of the major differences between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes is pruning. Indeterminate plants require more frequent pruning of what are known as sucker shoots.
The main stem of each tomato plant will grow longer and longer as the season goes on. However, at each node where a stem of leaves branches off, there will also be a sucker shoot.
These shoots are essentially another vine beginning to develop. If allowed to grow out, these shoots will become very large, sucking energy away from the main stem. This causes reduced harvests and a more bushy, unwieldy plant.
Pruning away sucker shoots is essential when growing indeterminate tomatoes. This regular process keeps the main stem growing strong and healthy. It also encourages better airflow around each plant.
With sucker shoots pruned, all that is left is the main stem, leafy shoots, and tomato blossoms – perfect! This main stem is then trained, or tied to a tall trellis for support.
Note – I also recommend plucking early flower buds while the plants are still indoors.
As indeterminate plants grow taller, they will need something to climb for support. Without a trellis, your plants will certainly fall over and become subject to damage from inclement weather.
Trellises can be as simple as a few strands of strong string running from the base of the plants to the top of where you want them to grow. Or, you can buy trellis kits online for a more aesthetically pleasing garden design.
The plants can be attached to the trellis with Velcro tape to keep the plant growing in the desired direction. Indeterminate tomatoes can usually be spaced closer together than determinates thanks to their tall and slender shape when properly trellised.
As mentioned, indeterminate tomatoes produce fresh, ripe tomatoes all season long. This is the biggest benefit in my opinion, I love having fresh maters whenever I need them.
However, it is important to harvest in a timely manner. During summer and early fall, make it a routine to check for ripe tomatoes and pick them right away. If you wait too long, you may end up with cracking tomatoes or smaller overall yields.
You can pick indeterminate tomatoes individually as they ripen, or for a better table presentation, you can wait for an entire truss to ripen fully. This is not necessary, but can be neat to see!
Growing Determinate Tomatoes
While I find indeterminate tomatoes to be more rewarding, some think that determinates require less maintenance. They can be easy to grow, especially in a reasonably sized container.
The main difference from growing indeterminate varieties is that determinates don’t need as much pruning. They do, however, need some pruning, so let’s discuss a few of the main techniques.
What is a regular job for indeterminate tomatoes is a much less frequent occurrence for determinates. Pruning sucker shoots is not recommended for determinate tomatoes, as these will actually help increase yields.
Since we know determinate plants will reach a certain size and then stop growing, we don’t want to reduce the amount of potentially fruitful shoots. Instead, pruning involves removing some of the leafy portions of the plant.
Leafy stems can inhibit airflow and ventilation. This can cause a more humid environment for the plants, causing more susceptibility to blight and other diseases.
I recommend pruning low leafy branches from the plants, especially any that are touching the ground. I also remove some of the leafy shoots from the middle of my plants if they become overcrowded during the season.
Most importantly, you have to give determinate tomatoes support and room to grow. This will help keep the plants well-ventilated and healthy as they begin to produce fruits.
Staking or Using Cages
Since determinate plants typically grow to 5′ or so, a tall trellis is not necessary. However, they tend to be more bushy and thick, calling for support all around each plant.
Cages that can be found at the hardware store are usually quickly outgrown by many tomato varieties. Instead, you can use these taller tomato cages for more support as the plant’s grow larger. Or, some have suggested using goat fencing for a cheap DIY method.
Staking is a simple method for keeping the main stem supported, but does not support secondary shoots that will grow.
Depending on the space you have, either method can work to support your plants. Just be prepared to snip away any excess foliage that does not have adequate support. This will keep the energy of the plant focused where it matters most.
Once again, harvesting is an important step for growing determinate tomatoes. Since determinate plants produce one big harvest all at once, it can be a bit overwhelming!
Be prepared for a large yield of tomatoes and have a plan set in place. I love to freeze our tomatoes when we have a large harvest. You can also dehydrate tomatoes for long-term storage, or make a sauce and freeze it for use throughout the year.
Since supporting heavy tomato plants is so important, I wanted to break down the differences a bit further. Plant support is a major difference between determinate vs indeterminate tomatoes.
Indeterminate tomatoes are best supported with tall, single-post trellises. These can be made using string or twine, or just a tall wooden stake. Since indeterminate tomato plants are typically pruned to a single main stem, this stem can follow a single, central trellis until it reaches a suitable height.
There are many options for how to construct an indeterminate tomato trellis. The most simple method is to use a tall, wooden stake that is driven deep into the ground. Indeterminate tomatoes can grow to be as tall as you want, so be sure to build a trellis that is to your liking.
The drawback to using a wooden stake is that you must then keep the plants to a single main stem. If you want to allow your indeterminate tomatoes to have 2 or more vines, a good option is to create a string trellis. This video shows a thorough method for making your own string trellis.
Determinate tomatoes are much more bushy and wide than they are tall. This means that they require a different type of support from indeterminate varieties. Instead of a trellis, I recommend using a large, wide cage.
Metal cages surround the plants, providing several bars where leafy shoots can rest and support heavy fruits. There are wide openings that make harvesting and pruning easier as well.
As mentioned, determinate varieties can also be staked with a single, central stake. However, as the plants bush out, the will require some additional support for heavy, fruit-filled branches.
Types of Indeterminate Tomatoes
If you like the idea of ongoing harvests that indeterminates offer, here are a few of the many tomato options you have to choose from.
This big, wrinkly, bright orange heirloom tomato is a crowd pleaser. These indeterminate tomatoes would make a great sandwich topper or tomato sauce.
These cherry tomatoes will bring a new look to your garden. Ripening to a soft off-white color, these smaller tomatoes are perfect for snacking. Since you’ll get many harvests throughout the season, you’ll probably find yourself popping a few with each visit to the garden!
Another larger variety, this gorgeous striped tomato is a looker. Beautiful reds and greens make this tomato gorgeous, though some reviews mention that they can be susceptible to splitting.
Types of Determinate Tomatoes
If you have decided to go with determinate tomatoes, here are several options for you to grow from seed.
This early ripening determinate variety is a beautiful orange color and a medium size. The smooth skin is great for slicing or canning, and the bright color is beautiful in the garden.
If you’re looking for a determinate cherry tomato, look no further than the Baby Boomer. You will have more cherry tomatoes than you know what to do with, so be ready to make tomato salad and share with friends!
These highly compact tomato plants are said to only reach 18″ in height. However, the tomatoes are up to 4″ in diameter! the plants are also self-supporting and ripen very early, especially considering the fruit size.
I hope this article helped give you a better understanding of indeterminate vs determinate tomatoes. Once you know the difference and try growing both, you will likely develop a preference for one over the other. Let me know your favorite in the comments below!