Less Noise, More Green: Determinate or Indeterminate Tomatoes? That is the question!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Determinate or Indeterminate Tomatoes? That is the question!

Thinking about tomato plants in February is crazy, right?

I don't know, a just picked tomato still warm from the sun sounds like a little piece of heaven right now and based on my lackluster tomato results last year, a little forethought  is not a bad idea!

Indeterminate flower clusters develop off the stem and the stem keeps growing.

Blight and other tomato diseases are a major issue here in New England. Just like potatoes, the blight can live in the soil long after the plant is gone making crop rotation frustrating. Factor that into the other challenges I have in my small urban garden and the easiest solution is, like the potatoes, to remove most of the tomatoes from the beds.

This is where I plan on adding raised beds for determinate tomatoes and sunflowers.
My plan is to grow just a few eating tomatoes in the ground and the rest in containers and new raised beds. This will minimize the risk to my soil. If the plants in the containers become diseased I can just replace the soil before the next planting. Which variety of plants to grow, though? The decision is really based on whether the tomato plant is determinate or indeterminate.  Here is how I made my decision:

Indeterminate tomatoes grow in vines and continue to develop flowers and fruit throughout the life of the plant.

Indeterminate tomato varieties are vining plants. They can grow from six to twelve feet tall and need strong supports for growth. Pruning and pinching of suckers helps to keep growth under control.

Frost is the only thing that stops indeterminates!

Indeterminate tomatoes will continue to grow, flower and set fruit as long as the plant is alive which is usually until the first hard frost.

Yellow Pear Indeterminate

Indeterminate varieties are usually heirloom, beefsteak and cherry tomato varieties. Many argue that indeterminate tomatoes are better tasting than determinate varieties and are worth the extra maintenance.

An indeterminate grape tomato volunteer - support is definitely needed!

I want eating tomatoes for the length of the season so indeterminate varieties are what I plan to plant in the soil. I will only grow a couple of plants and keep them well pruned. Every year I have many volunteer grape tomato plants that appear all over my beds! In fact, these plants usually are more prolific than the ones I purposely plant, so I wont be adding any more to the plot plan.

I grew this determinate cherry tomato plant in a container last year.

Determinate varieties are bushy plants that may not need any support at all. They tend to grow to just three or four feet tall.  Determinates do not need pruning or pinching of suckers and in fact, because of their growth pattern, pinching will reduce the plant's fruit yield. Unlike indeterminates, determinates grow, flower, set fruit then stop growing. With all the fruit developing at the same time, harvesting comes in a short window, often just a couple of weeks. Once the plant fruits, it starts to die.

A determinate Roma tomato plant I grew from seed.

Flowers on determinates cluster together at the tips of the stems with little foliage growth beyond the cluster. Indeterminates have flower clusters growing off the stem with foliage and more flowers growing beyond.

Most determinates are recent hybrids and many are early varieties. Sauce and paste tomatoes are often determinates.  Commercial growers favor determinates for practical reasons - a short harvest window allows them to harvest the crop all at once.

I will be growing determinate sauce tomatoes in my containers and raised beds. Just like the farmers, a short harvest window will allow me to make my sauces and preserve them for the winter, all at once. Once the plant has produced it can be removed and replaced with a second crop.

Indeterminates need good pruning,

This system will give me the best of both worlds - a steady supply of delicious eating tomatoes and a large harvest of sauce tomatoes I can process all at once. All while minimizing the risks to my soil. I have ordered some tomato seeds and will start them indoors. I may also buy some plants from a local organic nursery if I am not happy with how my own starts look.

I really hope this system works for me. Last summer was so disappointing, especially the yield from my sauce tomatoes. For now I can just dream of the coming spring and find ways to be nice to Computer Man and Computer Boy who will be building the raised beds for me!

Frozen paw prints from my dog Bandit.

Do tomatoes give you trouble where you live?



  1. Sue,
    Great post again today, and the pictures! Love them.

    Thank you for all the useful information you've shared. Until THIS year, I have always just gone to the nursery and bought what ever "looked" good. Last year, I had GREAT success with the four tomato plants I had. One was a cherry tomato (or maybe a grape) that was to DIE for and the other's were Roma or Paste tomatoes, however, I have no clue as the what kind they actually were, as the tags never really said.

    This year, I have ordered a few to try from seed, "Matt's Wild Cherry" (Indeter.), "Martino's Roma"(paste - Deter.) and "Principe Borghese" (Sun Dried - Deter. Heirloom).

    I will also be doing them in containers this year. Last year, I know my crop could have been better with more daily light.

    So looking forward to spring. Sigh.......

  2. Hi Catherine,
    One of the reasons I'm putting in raised beds on the side of the house is the sun which is full for 8+ hours a day. Add to that the heat coming off the wall of the house and I'm hoping the tomatoes will thrive!