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Chadwick Cherry Tomato - heirloom seeds by Ethos Seed Company

Determinate and Indeterminate Tomatoes demystified

Tomatoes come in two distinct forms, determinate and indeterminate, each with its advantage and inconvenient.

But no matter what you choose to grow, what matters most if that you enjoy the entire process, from the moment you sow those tiny, precious seeds in the ground to that feeling of wonder when you take your first bite.

So, choose your tomatoes wisely, grow them with love and eat them with gusto!

Tomatoes are not all created equal.

 Yes, I said it and I’m not sorry!

Not all tomato plants are created equal, but this does not mean that any particular variety is better than another. There are so many varieties of tomatoes that every gardener can find the one that will fulfill that need, be it a space constraint, a special taste or a purpose such as canning.

This brings me to my first and most important point about growing tomatoes: know your needs and know the characteristics of the tomato you’re intent on growing. Are you looking to can enough tomato sauce to last you till next summer? Do you want to indulge in delicious tomato sandwiches for days on end? Are you a fan of tiny, whimsical tomatoes on your summer salads? Do you dream of growing the largest, most exotic fruits to wow your neighbors? Is your growing space restricted to a tidy few containers? Whatever your aspirations or conditions are, there is one or more tomato varieties out there that are perfect for you.

The great tomato divide

Tomato plants can be divided into two distinct categories: determinate and indeterminate. These two fundamental growing habits dictate the plant’s entire life cycle, from its growth to the way it set its fruits and the way it dies.

Determinate Tomatoes

Determinate tomatoes are born with an internal compass that pre-determines their entire life cycle. They grow to a pre-set height, then work on producing all their fruits, which ripen in a short period of time, usually about 2 weeks, then fade and die back. Those can be great qualities for the home gardener who understands these traits and make the most of them. They can also be great disadvantage if you don't know what to expect.

First of all, determinate tomatoes are the best for container gardening. 

tomato growing in container, determinate tomato seeds

Their pre-set size means the plants won’t try to outgrow their pots and will happily set their fruits in this contained space without being in danger of creating a jungle! I normally recommend a size of 5 gallons minimum per tomato plant, unless you grow micro tomatoes. Even at 5 gallons, a tomato plant needs regular feeding and watering to maintain optimal growth and fruits, but there are many options available for the organic grower to insure a plentiful harvest.

So, if your growing space is sparse and every inch counts, then choose a determinate tomato.

The second main characteristic of the determinate tomato resides in its fruiting habit. A determinate tomato has a genetically pre-set height, meaning it will stop its vegetative growth once its reaches its target height and then focus all its energy into setting fruits. All its fruits. Then it will ripen them. All within about 2 weeks from the first ripe fruit.

Lots of determinate tomatoes in a garden means a bamboozle of ripe tomato in the hands of the gardener. This can mean lots of empty eyes, slightly stunned gardeners scratching their heads, wondering what to do with all that bounty, only to hunger for fresh tomatoes a few weeks later, finding their garden filled with dead and dying tomato plants.

Sounds like a bad plan? Not so fast! 

Imagine you want to load your pantry with delicious, healthy, vibrant tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, whole tomatoes... and I'm missing a few in passing. This can mean days and days of work, harvesting, cleaning, processing and then canning all those goodies. I know, because I do it every year! 

No one wants to be spreading canning shores all summer, believe me. 

fresh salsa home canning, homegrown tomato canning

This is when determinate tomatoes come in handy! Their fruits ripen over such a  short period of time, so I only need to focus my energy on the tomato preserve for so long, freeing me from a fun but time consuming chore the rest of the year. For this reason, many paste and canning tomato variety are determinate. The gardeners of years past, who needed to put away food for their families for the long winter months, selected those varieties for their determinate traits in order to maximize their production time and free the gardener from having to spread out their canning duties throughout the summer. It also frees garden space for another crop, which is something I also put to good use. 


Final Opinion on Determinate Tomatoes


Determinate tomatoes are fantastic, if you know why you want to grow them!

I love growing a few plants of the famous Gold Nuggets Tomato on the back porch, where my daughter can snack on them as she plays. The plants are always perfectly happy to grow in my 5 gallons pots and keep a civilized appearance as they mature, unlike their indeterminate counterparts.

I also love to grow several beds of determinate paste tomatoes, such as the famous San Marzano tomato, because I can plan around a couple of weeks of heavy harvest and processing for delicious canned tomatoes, sauces and salsas. Their ripening habits means I have an ample supply for a short period of time, after which I can pull the plants out and plant my next succession of crops, ready for the Fall season.

I also like to grow a second succession crop of tomato and Gold Nuggets Tomato is perfect for that role. As a cherry tomato, it matures early enough to ripen before the temperatures dip too low and produces loads of golden yellow, juicy and sweet cherry tomatoes in a predictable amount of time. I am especially fond of growing a half dozen plants as a Fall crop of tomatoes, sown indoors in May and transplanted in July. They matures at the turn of Summer, producing their bounty right when my other tomatoes start to wither and die down. 

Indeterminate Tomatoes

The majority of heirloom and open-pollinated varieties are indeterminate tomatoes. The most interesting, varied and delicious tomatoes are indeterminate. Indeterminate tomatoes come in all shapes, colors and forms, from the classic to the downright strange.

Do you like blazing yellow tomatoes that boggle the mind? Try Dr. Wyche or Yellow Pear tomato. In the mood for bite-sized tomatoes to grace your lunchtime salad? Slice some Black Cherry, Red Pear or Chadwick tomatoes. Want a classic tomato sandwich? Go with Black Krim, Aunt Ruby’s German Green or Old German. No? Want something to impress your guests or entice your children to eat more vegetables? Place a few Berkeley Tie-Dye on a plate and watch them exclaim at the beauty of your homegrown tomatoes.

heirloom tomatoes

Indeterminate tomatoes plants are technically vines, so they grow continuously, producing fruits along an increasingly long stem, which greatly benefits from being staked. If the plant is not staked, it will grow roots wherever it touches the ground.

One of the greatest advantage of the indeterminate tomatoes is their ability to produce fruits over a long period of time and along a long stem. They produce an overall greater harvest size than determinate tomatoes, but the harvest is spread over time. This can be an advantage if you are looking for that special addition to your daily meal or a tasty snack throughout the day. Their total production is also larger than their determinate counterparts.

Indeterminate tomatoes are also more challenging to grow in containers as they will continue to grow into an increasingly hard to manage tangle of vines. It can be done and many have done it in the past, but it is harder to go against a plant’s nature than to take advantage of it.

If you have ample space to stake and maintain those large vine, indeterminate tomatoes are your best choice for a continual, plentiful harvest. They also offer the widest diversity in taste, appearance and size and for this reason, the majority of the tomato plants that I grow each year are indeterminates.

Final Opinion on Indeterminate Tomatoes

Indeterminate tomatoes are a treasure trove of taste, color and texture that has not stopped amazing throughout the years. There are so many choices that it is simply impossible to grow them all, but I certainly encourage you to try! 

To conclude

Tomatoes come in two distinct forms, determinate and indeterminate, each with its advantage and inconvenient.

But no matter what you choose to grow, what matters most if that you enjoy the entire process, from the moment you sow those tiny, precious seeds in the ground to that feeling of wonder when you take your first bite.

So, choose your tomatoes wisely, grow them with love and eat them with gusto!

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