Did you know that tomato plants are hard-wired to grow to a certain size and height? Some tomato plants grow tall and vine-y with long growing seasons, while others are short and bushy with a limited production run. These two classifications are called indeterminate and determinate, respectively, and tomato plants fall into one or the other. When planning your tomato garden, knowing the details about determinate vs. indeterminate tomato plants will help you select the best varieties for your space and your tomato growing goals.
Determinate vs. Indeterminate Tomato Plants: The Basics
The primary differences between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes lie in their growth habits, size, and fruit production.
Determinate tomatoes, often referred to as “bush” tomatoes, grow to a certain height, and then stop. Typically, they reach a compact size of 4 to 5 feet, which makes them suitable for small spaces or container gardening.
The most important distinction for gardeners, however, is in their fruit production. Determinate tomatoes produce all their fruit more or less at approximately the same time, typically over a 1- to 2-month period. Once the fruit is mature, the plant stops producing.
On the other hand, indeterminate tomatoes grow continuously and flower, and produce fruit until killed by frost or another external factor. These vining tomatoes — also referred to by some as “pole” tomatoes — can reach heights of 6 to 10 feet or more, given the right support and care.
Unlike their determinate relatives, indeterminate tomatoes produce new fruit continuously throughout the growing season, providing a steady supply of fresh tomatoes.
There are also semi-determinate tomatoes, which fall somewhere in between: they behave like indeterminate tomatoes in that they grow and fruit all season long — not all at once — but remain shorter and bushier like determinates. But for classification purposes, determinate and indeterminate remain the standard.
Before we get into the deets, here’s a summary table of determinate vs. indeterminate tomatoes:
|Growth habit||Bushy, compact||Vining, tall|
|Height||3-5 feet||6-12 feet|
|Fruit Production||All at once||Throughout the season|
|Support||Basic support for central stem, such as staking||Trellising needed to support long vines|
|Best for||Gardeners with limited space or who want to do preserves (sauces and pastes)||Gardeners with sufficient space who want tomatoes throughout season|
How to Tell the Difference Between Determinate and Indeterminate Tomatoes
The best and most definitive way to tell the difference is to know the variety and how it’s classified. When you’re buying seeds or a starter plant, determinate or indeterminate should be included in the description.
But, the two types of tomatoes have different characteristics that give clues as to which classification they belong.
Determinate tomatoes have a terminal end (the tip of each stem) that often ends in a flower cluster. This is the key visual indicator that the plant is a determinate variety: if you see a stem dead-end into a flower cluster, it’s a determinate tomato.
Indeterminate varieties continue to grow shoots from the tips of their stems, producing long, unending vines with flower clusters branching off from the stem.
Determinate tomatoes grow to a certain height and then stop. They grow in a bushy habit with more branching stems that will end with flower clusters and fruit.
Indeterminate tomatoes grow long vines from the main stem, sprouting side shoots with flower clusters as they go. You should be prepared to provide very tall and sturdy support to indeterminate tomatoes, because a happy, healthy plant living in nutritious soil will grow to impressive heights. Like this:
Indeterminate cherry tomato plants soaring far above an 8′ privacy fence. For scale, I’m the photographer shooting from the ground looking up, at 5’4″ tall. The vines reached the first floor’s gutter.
Determinate tomatoes produce all their fruit at about the same time, typically over a couple of months. Once the first fruit set is mature, the plant will stop producing. This makes them the best choice for canning sauces and pastes, where large quantities of tomatoes are needed at once. Determinate tomatoes are usually the first to ripen in the garden.
Indeterminate tomatoes produce fruit continuously throughout the growing season until frost or disease stops them. They often start fruiting later than determinate tomatoes, but they produce fresh fruit until the end of the growing season. This characteristic is great for gardeners who want a steady supply of tomatoes all summer long.
Size and Space:
Determinate tomatoes are smaller and more compact, making them a good choice for container gardening or small garden beds. Most determinate tomatoes will still need support of some kind; usually sturdy cages or a string trellising system works great.
Indeterminate tomatoes require more space to grow because of their vining habit. And as mentioned, they need sturdy support.
For my largest tomatoes, such as Black Cherries, I drive 6-foot metal U-posts with an anchor plate into the ground and hang large rebar panels from the stakes’ hooks. They can be easily positioned to over 10 feet tall. I secure the vines as they grow to the rebar with twine.
Advantages of Growing Determinate Tomatoes
There are several advantages to growing determinate tomatoes, which spring directly from their physical characteristics:
Space-efficient: Determinate tomatoes are compact and smaller in size, making them suitable for small gardens, patios, and container gardening. They’re an excellent option if you have limited space, or just need a smaller plant to manage.
Less support needed: Unlike indeterminate varieties, determinate tomatoes don’t require extensive staking due to their bush-like growth habit. Usually, you can get away with setting a 3 or 4-foot cage around the young plant early in the season, and then just directly the tomato’s branches through the cage as it grows.
Simultaneous harvest: Most of the season’s tomatoes on determinate plants usually grow and ripen around the same time, which can be beneficial if you want a large harvest all at once. If you’re an avid canner (or are learning!), you’ll definitely want to grow determinate tomatoes so that you have enough to cook for each jar.
Shorter growing season: Determinate varieties often have an earlier but shorter growing season compared to indeterminate varieties. This is especially useful if you live in a region with a shorter summer, but still want a full harvest.
Easier management: Because they stop growing once they set fruit, determinate tomatoes are generally easier to manage, which can be a big advantage for new gardeners or those who don’t have a lot of time for pruning and training plants. Whereas indeterminates grow until something kills them — they’re the Energizer Bunny of tomatoes — a determinate variety has a naturally short lifespan.
Advantages of Growing Indeterminate Tomatoes
Indeterminate tomatoes also come with several advantages, not the least of which is choice. Since I no longer can tomatoes, I generally don’t grow determinates anymore, but I certainly did in my younger years.
Longer Harvest: Indeterminate tomatoes produce fruit continuously throughout the growing season until the environment can no longer support the tomato’s health. This might be through disease, or when the first frost hits. This means you’ll have a steady supply of tomatoes, which is perfect if you want to enjoy fresh tomatoes over a long period.
In regions like mine, where Octobers are getting warmer and warmer, my tomatoes will produce fruit until my weary gardener self tears the plants down so that I can prepare the beds for winter. Which almost sounds like a complaint lol, but having fresh tomatoes from July through October is a very good thing.
Higher Yield: Although they start producing later than determinate tomatoes, indeterminate varieties often yield more fruit overall because they produce continuously along their very long vines.
Variety of Choices: This is the main reason I grow indeterminates. Most heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate — including the much beloved Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, and Mortgage Lifter — so you have a wide range of choices in terms of flavors, colors, and sizes. In fact, most cherry tomatoes are indeterminate, so if you love these bite-sized treasures as much as I do, that’s reason enough to embrace the charms of the indeterminate tomato.
Better for Grazing: If you enjoy eating tomatoes fresh off the vine throughout the summer, indeterminate tomatoes will provide fruit all season long. There’s just no better treat for the gardener than sampling produce as you’re working!
Bear in mind, though, that indeterminate tomatoes require more attention than determinate plants. They need sturdy support, regular pruning, and more space to grow.
What are a few examples of determinate varieties?
While indeterminate tomatoes vastly outnumber determinate, there are several popular determinate tomato varieties to choose from. In my area, at least, local stores don’t stock as many (if any) determinate tomatoes as they do indeterminates, so you might have to grow them from seed.
Here are a few examples that I’ve grown:
San Marzano: These famous plum tomatoes are outstanding choices to create exquisitely flavorful homemade tomato sauces and pastes.
Rutgers: This is an old favorite with a rich, tangy tomato flavor that’s often used for canning and juicing.
Banana Legs: An unusual heirloom tomato that grows long and slender and ripens to a bright yellow. Like a banana. Delicious for both fresh eating and cooked tomato recipes.
Bush Early Girl: This variety is known for its quick maturation early in the season, producing a good yield of medium-sized fruits. If you’re hoping for some fresh tomatoes for your July 4th burgers, plant this variety.
Black Sea Man: Like most purple-black tomatoes, this heirloom has complex flavors and gorgeous purple/mahogany/green coloring. A great slicing tomato!
Celebrity: Known for its disease resistance and versatility, Celebrity tomatoes are great for slicing, salads, and canning.
Choosing the Right Variety for Your Garden
Whether you choose determinate or indeterminate tomatoes, your decision should be based on your gardening space and your personal preferences for the flavors available in each type.
If you have limited space or want a large harvest all at once for canning or preserving, determinate varieties like San Marzano, Rutgers, or Bush Early Girl might be the best fit. If you prefer a steady supply of tomatoes throughout the summer and have ample space, indeterminate varieties like Black Cherry, Super Sweet 100, Brandywine, or Sun Gold might be the way to go.
Remember, each tomato variety comes with its unique qualities, so it’s worth exploring your options and experimenting if you can. Happy gardening!