How to Tell the Difference Between Determinate and Indeterminate Tomatoes

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indeterminate tomato plant

Tomatoes are one of the most popular gardening plants to grow. One of the most common questions people ask is the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. I’ll admit, when I started gardening I didn’t even know these terms existed, so I’ve done a lot of research!

What is the difference between a determinate and indeterminate tomato plant? 

  • Determinate tomato plants are small and bushy, typically no more than 4 to 5 feet tall, and set their tomatoes all at the same time.
  • Indeterminate tomato plants have a more vine type of structure, can grow over 10 feet tall, and continuously provide new tomatoes up until the last frost.

That is the main visual way to quickly distinguish if a tomato plant is determinate or indeterminate. We can go into more detail on how to tell the difference and also find out which variety should you plant based on your specific needs.

Steps to Determine if a Tomato Plant is a Determinate or Indeterminate Variety

  1. Check the height of the plant. After the plant has been growing for a while and has tomatoes on it, check its height. If it is fairly short (no more than four to five feet tall), then it is probably a determinate tomato. Assuming the plant is staked to keep it upright if it is getting very tall (up to heights of eight feet or more), then it is most likely an indeterminate variety.
  2. Check the leaves of our plant. Determinate tomatoes commonly have leaves that are closer together on the stem, making them look bushier. Indeterminate varieties have leaves that are spaced out more and look more like vines.
  3. Check the flowers and fruit production.  If the tomato plant is flowering all at once and producing all of its tomatoes at the same time, then it is a determinate tomato. It will grow all of its fruit and ripen all tomatoes within the same two to three week timespan and then the plant will be done growing and producing. On the other hand, indeterminate tomatoes will continue to grow and produce more flowers and fruit up to your first frost, so you’ll have a mix of new flowers and ripe fruit at the same time.
  4. Check the plant tag or seed packet.  This might seem obvious but it may be something that was missed. If the plant was purchased at a nursery or garden center, it may say on the tag if it is determinate or indeterminate. If the plant was started from seed, it may say on the seed packet.

So now you know how to identify the type of tomato plant, but which type should you plant? Let’s find out next!

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Determinate and Indeterminate Tomatoes?

Depending on your needs and how you will use your tomatoes, some of the features listed below could be considered both an advantage or a disadvantage, so some are listed twice.

Determinate Tomatoes

  • Advantages
    • Less maintenance because the plant is smaller in size and more manageable.
    • More tomatoes produced earlier in the growing season.
    • Avoid common disease issues that plague tomato plants later in the season because the plant will be finished producing.
    • Get all tomatoes from the plant at about the same time. This might be beneficial for canning purposes.
    • Once the plant is finished with its one batch of tomatoes, you can remove the plant and use that space for something else.
  • Disadvantages
    • Fewer tomatoes per plant.
    • All the tomatoes will be picked from the plant at about the same time. If you are growing a lot of the same kind of tomato, you may have more than you can handle all at once.
    • Fewer tomato plants per square foot because more space is needed in between each plant.
    • The plant will die once it is finished producing and you’ll be left with empty space in your garden unless you plant something else.

Indeterminate Tomatoes

  • Advantages
    • More tomatoes per plant.
    • Larger tomatoes if the single stem method is used.
    • Can grow more plants in a smaller amount of space if the single stem method is used.
    • Will gradually produce more tomatoes all season long until the first frost.
  • Disadvantages
    • More maintenance is required because the plant never stops growing. More attention to staking and pruning will be necessary.
    • If not pruning, you may receive a lot of tomatoes but they’ll likely be smaller in size.

Knowing this information should help you decide which type of tomato plants to grow. I’ve mentioned a few times about a single stem method and pruning, so let’s cover that next!

Should you Prune your Tomato Plant?

Everyone seems to have a different opinion on this popular topic so I will give you what I have learned from my experiences and research.

For either type of tomato plant, minimal pruning is recommended. The bottom branches of tomato plants should always be pruned in order to get good air flow between the plants and the soil. Common disease problems, like mildew and blight, that plague tomatoes can sometimes be prevented by making sure the leaves are not touching the ground and water isn’t splashing up on the plant during heavy rains.  I also recommend cutting off leaf branches in between tomato plants to ensure proper air flow.

Now let’s talk about suckers (no not the candy!). A sucker is new growth that starts in between the main growing stem of the plant and a leaf stem. Suckers can be considered a new tomato plant because it becomes another main stem that can produce flowers, fruit and more suckers.  

For determinate tomatoes, it is commonly recommended not to remove the suckers and to let your plant grow as much as it can. You only get one chance for your plant to set fruit, so you want as many growing stems and flowers as possible.

For indeterminate tomatoes, it can really be done either way. If you don’t prune any of the suckers, much more growth will occur and many more tomatoes will be produced. However, those tomatoes may be smaller in size because it takes much more energy from the plant to produce that many tomatoes.

If you do decide to prune the suckers, you will likely end up with larger tomatoes, less foliage to work with, and you’ll be able to plant more tomato plants closer together. This method of pruning is called the “single stem” method. The main growing stem can be tracked from the ground and followed up the plant. Any time a sucker appears in between the main stem and a leaf branch, remove that sucker. The main stem will need to be staked and will grow very tall and produce very nice, large tomatoes.

He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.

John 15:2

What Types of Tomatoes are Determinate and Indeterminate?

So now you’re probably ready to buy some tomato seeds or plants, but you may not know which varieties you want because they are not always marked clearly as determinate or indeterminate. Many, many different varieties are out there but this is just a small list of some of the most common tomatoes.

Types of Determinate Tomatoes

  • RomaSmall meaty tomato that is commonly used for sauces, canning, and making tomato paste.
  • Ace 55 – Perfectly round shaped tomatoes that are small to medium in size.
  • Rutgers – Another very round shaped tomato that is versatile enough to use for any situation!
  • GrapeSemi-determinate variety that is in between a cherry tomato and Roma tomato in features.
  • San Marzano – Semi-determinate similar to a Roma tomato with great flavor.

Types of Indeterminate Tomatoes

  • CherryBite-sized tomatoes with a sweet flavor that are most commonly eaten whole. Most varieties are indeterminate.
  • Jetstar – Low acidity, crack-resistant tomato.
  • Better Boy – A very common variety that produces medium-sized fruit often seen in a grocery store. A good slicing tomato.
  • Early Girl – A medium-sized tomato that is known for its quick and early harvests.
  • Beefsteak – Known for their very large fruit and great taste.
  • Sungold – Similar to cherry tomatoes. Small in size, orange in color, and a very sweet flavor.
  • Champion – Great medium-sized tomato that produces an early harvest and continues to produce until your first frost.

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Related Questions

Are heirloom tomatoes determinate or indeterminate?  Some heirloom tomatoes are determinate and some are indeterminate. Heirloom means that the plant is open pollinated and has been a variety in circulation for more than 50 years.

How long will determinate tomatoes produce? Determinate tomatoes will produce tomatoes according to the ‘days to maturity’ label on the seed packet. The plant will only produce one harvest of tomatoes at this time.

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Corey Leichty

Hi, I’m Corey and I love using gardening as a way to provide food for my family, learn life lessons alongside my wife, Andrea, and teach life lessons to my two sons. Do you have gardening questions? Not finding what you are looking for? Please feel free to Ask a Question (Click Here!) and I will get back with you as soon as I can!

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