What's the Difference Between "Indeterminate" and "Determinate" Tomatoes?

Ripe and green tomatoes growing on a vine against a brick wall

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Tomatoes are arguably the most popular plant for new gardeners looking to test their green thumbs. Generally speaking, tomatoes are pretty easy to grow and give new gardeners that sense of accomplishment to propels their interest in gardening because the harvests can be bountiful for a first-timer.

Choosing the right tomato for your gardening space and needs is key. Besides the heirloom and hybrid labels, there are two types of tomatoes you can grow: determinate and indeterminate tomatoes.

What are Determinate Tomatoes?

Determinate tomatoes are more commonly known as "bush" tomatoes. These tomato varieties are compact and generally grow to a height of about 3'-4' in a growing season. Determinate tomatoes stop growing when the top bud of the plant sets fruit. All of their crop will ripen near the same time over a period of 1-2 weeks and then the plant, having completed its life cycle, will begin to die. Determinate tomatoes are good candidates for growing in containers, and the aluminum tomato cages you buy at the garden center are designed to support these tomatoes.

Examples include: 'Silver Fir Tree,' 'Rutgers,' 'Roma,' and 'Green Zebra.'

What are Indeterminate Tomatoes?

Indeterminate tomato varieties are more commonly known as "vining" tomatoes. Indeterminate tomatoes can grow anywhere from 6'-10' tall in a growing season. They will continue to grow, bloom, and set fruit until they are killed by the first frost of the growing season. These tomatoes require lots of staking and pruning of tomato suckers. If you've ever grown a tomato in a small space (like a balcony or porch) that quickly became unmanageable, you grew an indeterminate tomato.

Examples include: 'Black Krim,' 'Abe Lincoln,' 'Arkansas Traveler,' and most "cherry" tomatoes.

If space-saving is an issue in your garden, grow determinate tomatoes that can easily be caged or staked to keep them in check. If you have more room and can stake a plant, choose an indeterminate variety.

Another thing to take into consideration is the amount of time you want to spend harvesting. I find that there's less of an emotional connection with determinate tomatoes. They grow to a certain height, you get your crop, and you tear out the plant to make room for your second season planting. The growth habit of Indeterminates can result in keeping a plant around way past its prime. You may find yourself growing a raggedy plant well into the fall because you want to give that last bloom at the tip a chance to develop and fruit.

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