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Determinate Versus Indeterminate Tomato Plants

What exactly are determinate tomatoes, and how are they different from indeterminate?  Should you care?  Does it make a difference as to how it grows?  What about the tomatoes themselves — are they different?  Glad you asked, because this post covers determinate versus indeterminate tomatoes.

Okay, So Why Care What They Are?

The reason to care about determinate versus indeterminate tomato plants is three-fold:

  • The size of the plant.
  • How the fruit sets.
  • How long the plant continues to grow and produce.

While both types of plants can be small or large, what really sets the plants apart are the way they set their fruit and how long they grow.  And depending on how you plan to use your ripe tomatoes, one may be better for you than the other.

Determinate Tomato Plants

Let’s cover the determinate tomato plants first.  These kinds of tomato plants are best characterized by setting the vast majority of their fruits at once.  They tend to grow to their mostly full height, and then set their masses of fruits.  And some of them can have truly spectacular harvests!

The catch is that you’ll have tomatoes coming out of your ears for a short time period.  And once they set their fruit, they don’t generally grow any larger, nor set additional tomatoes.

This is fantastic if you plan to use your homegrown tomatoes for canning, drying, selling at a farmer’s market or just sharing with friends and family.  But if you don’t plan on doing any of the above, a lot of your tomatoes may end up going to waste.  The exception might be a small-fruited determinate tomato, because you can use them up faster.

Indeterminate Tomato Plants

You might guess that indeterminate tomato plants are the opposite — and you’d be right!  Indeterminate tomato plants grow all throughout the season, and keep setting fruits until the heat (too much or lack of) does the plants in.  You’ll get more of a regulated harvest of homegrown tomatoes instead of all at once.

Indeterminate tomatoes are great when you want tomatoes ripening over a longer period of time.  Depending on what you like, you may want to grow multiple plants that ripen at different times.  I will say that if you adore cherry-type tomatoes, you may only need one plant — some of them are crazy prolific!

What About Size?

As a general rule of thumb, determinate tomato plants grow shorter than indeterminates.  But, there are tall determinates and short indeterminates, so that isn’t a hard and fast rule.  There are also dwarf tomato plants of each type.  But, you are more likely to find a short indeterminate than a really tall determinate.

For me, my determinates tend to top out at 2 to 3 feet, while my indeterminates can grow to six feet or more.  Again, though, that’s a general rule of thumb.

Semi-Determinates — What are They?

You may have seen or heard the term semi-determinate tomatoes.  Some people call compact/dwarf plants semi-determinate, just because they seem to top out at 3 to 4 feet, even if they set fruit constantly instead of all at once.

Then there are the varieties that have one big initial harvest, and then produce a few more tomatoes after the initial harvest, while growing just a little bit more.  Personally, that is what I call semi-determinate — how they set their fruit, and if they continue to grow (however tall that is).

Now you know about the main types of tomato plants.  Which one is best for you?  If you have the room, I suggest you grow both kinds and see which you prefer.  Happy Tomato-ing!

(For transparency:  for some of the links, if you click and buy the seeds, I might get a few cents in commission, even though you don’t pay any more.  It simply helps me continue to garden and post.)