When I was about 8 years old, I tried growing tomatoes at home several times but failed miserably. After gardening for over a decade now, I realize that it might be because I never paid attention to whether they were determinate or indeterminate!
Determinate tomatoes are 1) smaller, 2) require less space, 3) grow more rapidly, 4) produce fruits for a shorter period, 5) need much less structural support, and 6) and don’t need regular pruning compared to determinate tomato varieties.
Although they generally require the same care, certain factors could make or break a tomato based on its type. Pruning determinate tomatoes for instance is highly discouraged. Find out the possible consequences of not following such advice below!
1. Plant Size
Mature determinate tomato plants generally grow up to 4–5 ft (1.22–1.52 m), whereas established indeterminate tomatoes can grow taller than 6–8 ft (1.83–2.44 m).
You could actually guess just how big your tomato plant can grow based on what type they are.
Determinate varieties, commonly called bush tomatoes, only grow up to a certain height. They rarely ever grow more than 5 ft or 1.52 m.
Once they reach their maximum height—which is different per cultivar and variety—they’ll stop growing. In other words, determinate tomatoes are very compact.
Here are some great determinate tomatoes:
- Florida 47
- Mountain Delight
- Mountain Fresh
- Mountain Pride
- Orange Blossom
- Pik Red
- Plum Dandy
- San Marzano
Discover which are the best and easiest bush tomatoes to grow!
By contrast, indeterminate tomatoes can continue growing indefinitely provided that they have structure to cling on. This is why they’re also called vine tomatoes.
Indeterminate tomatoes can reach towering heights of 12 ft (3.66 m) and more!
Now, of course, indeterminate tomatoes should also be given sufficient water and fertilizer. Otherwise, they can’t thrive and grow constantly. Just remember that external factors like the first fall frost can kill them off.
Common indeterminate tomatoes include:
- Better Boy
- Black Krim
- Cherokee Purple
- Early Girl
- Green Zebra
- Matt’s Wild Cherry
- Red Grape
- Sweet 100
2. Space Allocation
While determinate tomatoes can be grown next to each other by 12 inches (30 cm), indeterminate varieties require at least 24 inches (60 cm) of space between each plant to grow to their full potential and improve yield.
This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, okay? Nevertheless, according to numerous experts from Cooperative Extensions around the US, it’s ideal to leave some space between tomatoes.
Properly spacing tomato plants allows for easier harvest and prevents the development and spread of diseases.
As I said in the previous section, determinate tomatoes stay rather compact. So they don’t need a lot of elbow room around them.
For the most part, bush varieties only need about a foot on each side. But if you do use a wire cage for them, you made need to space them 18–24 inches (45–60 cm) apart.
Indeterminate tomatoes, on the other hand, can grow very vigorously—especially when they’re well-maintained and cared for. Place them 24–36 inches (60–90 cm) apart on raised beds and garden plots.
How about spacing for container tomatoes? Well, keep in mind that it’s best to only grow one tomato plant per plant—be it determinate or indeterminate.
These space allocations could instead serve as your guide to finding wide-enough containers so that your tomatoes have enough space to grow in.
Find out more in our guide to growing potted cherry tomatoes!
3. Growth Rate
In comparison, determinate tomato varieties reach maturity much faster than their indeterminate counterparts that can grow continuously under favorable conditions. This makes determinate tomato good even for planting late in the season.
Determinate tomatoes are generally only grown as annuals in America because they only grow until a certain point—between 1–5 ft (0.3–152 m)—within a single growing season.
Meanwhile, indeterminate tomato varieties won’t really stop growing as long as their growing conditions permit good development.
These tomatoes can be grown as biennials or perennials even in the US, especially in zones 11–13. But only if they can be protected from frost with plant covers or by overwintering.
In other words, determinate tomatoes reach their mature height much faster than most, if not all, indeterminate tomatoes.
Bush plants also have a much shorter plant-to-harvest period so they’re great for newbie gardeners that want to get a taste of the fruits of their labor in just a little over 1–2 months!
4. Fruit Production
A determinate tomato plant can produce fruits for only about 1–1.5 months. Conversely, an indeterminate tomato plant can bear fruits for longer than 2–3 months.
When a determinate tomato has reached its maximum height, it will start diverting all its energy and resources into flowering and producing fruits rather than more stems and leaves.
Then, once bush varieties do grow quick-ripening fruits, they do so in great abundance. So if you’re planning to start canning tomatoes, look for determinate ones. Expect all their fruits to be ready for picking roughly around the same time frame, within about 4–5 weeks or so.
As such, determinate tomatoes are a great choice for home gardeners living in colder regions because they won’t have to worry about losing any crop to frost.
Check out your other options in our article on plants to grow in zone 5!
In contrast, indeterminate tomato varieties can pretty much produce fruits until the end of time because they really can grow forevermore if the conditions are right.
You will notice that tomato clusters on indeterminate plant varieties are at varying stages of maturity. So if you grow a vine tomato at home, you’ll have fruits ready for harvest throughout the growing season for your salads, sandwiches, soups, stews—what have you!
Simply put—despite needing to wait longer to harvest such delectable tomatoes, growing such plants allows home gardeners to enjoy the result of their hard work and care for a longer time as well.
5. Structural Support
Unlike vine varieties, determinate tomatoes don’t always require structural support. Indeterminate tomatoes, however, need sturdy structures like trellises and stakes to support their growth and heavy fruit clusters.
Personally, I like determinate tomatoes more than vine varieties because I find them much more manageable overall.
Oftentimes, they can grow prolifically without any support at all. This is true for virtually all bush tomato plants that are grown in containers. Unless, of course, their fruits are quite big.
Then again some can reach 4–5 ft (1.22–1.52 m) tall. At such heights, it’s best to at least use a tomato cage to prevent them from toppling over when they’re full of juicy ripe fruits.
It’s the complete opposite for vine tomato varieties. Because of their sprawling growth habit, they not only need to be supported but also trained!
At the very least, these indeterminate plants that grow vigorously will do well if they have a stake to lean on for support.
Don’t cheap out on their support though. You need to create or buy more robust structural support for such varieties—more so if they’re known to grow way taller than 6 ft (1.83 m)!
6. Pruning Needs
Determinate tomato plants commonly shouldn’t be pruned as doing so can reduce yield. On the contrary, indeterminate tomato plants need to be pruned regularly.
If you’re a beginner home gardener, you might not know this but determinate tomatoes are basically self-pruning plants!
The stems of each bush tomato end with a fruit cluster. Hence, there is little to no need to regularly or heavily prune them.
So pruning your determinate tomatoes can do more harm than good because you’re getting rid of green growth that will bear fruits in the future. In short, it’s best to leave them alone.
The suckers on determinate plants should only be removed when they are 2–4 inches (5–10 cm). More importantly, only suckers between the plant base and the first branch should be cut.
But with indeterminate tomatoes, the opposite is true. You want to keep your indeterminate tomato plants easy to maintain and looking neat by proper pruning.
When you get rid of the unnecessary suckers, your sprawling vine tomatoes will focus more on producing more, better quality fruits rather than leafy growth. This also reduces how much fruits are shaded, which can—in turn—speed up the ripening of tomatoes.
Properly pruned indeterminate tomato plants are also much less likely to develop bacterial and fungal diseases due to high humidity.
Which tomato is better determinate or indeterminate?
In terms of disease resistance, determinate tomatoes such as modern hybrids are better than indeterminate ones like heirlooms. Vine varieties also require more work to grow due to support and pruning. However, they can produce fruits for a much longer period so they are good for home gardens. Bush tomatoes are better for large-scale production.
Do you bury determinate tomatoes deep?
Determinate tomato seedlings can be buried 3–6 inches deep into the soil for more vigorous root development. By burying part of the lower stem deeper, roots can grow from the buried portion of the stem. Leggy seedlings, however, are better laid sideways on a shallow trench, only 2–3 inches deep, so that the young tomato plant can grow more compact.
What are semi-determinate tomato plants?
Semi-determinate tomato plants resemble both determinate and indeterminate varieties. They generally grow into compact bushy plants like determinate tomatoes. However, they can also produce fruits over the entire growing season like indeterminate tomatoes. Semi-determinate tomatoes can also be described as dwarf-indeterminate plant varieties.
Summary of Determinate vs Indeterminate Tomatoes
Determinate tomatoes grow to about 4–5 ft (1.22–1.52 m), must be spaced by 12 inches (30 cm), mature faster, fruits for only 1–1.5 months, don’t always need structural support, and can grow fruits abundantly without regular pruning.
Indeterminate tomato plants grow at least 6–8 ft (1.83–2.44 m), need to be spaced by 24 inches (60 cm), can grow indefinitely with ideal conditions, bear fruits for more or less 2–3 months, require strong support structures, and should be pruned regularly.
- “What’s The Difference Between Determinate and Indeterminate Tomatoes?” by Shelley Stone-Schmidt in the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources
- “Growing Tomatoes in the Home Garden” by Larry Bass and Douglas Sanders in the NC State Extension
- “Growing Vegetables: Tomatoes [fact sheet]” by Rebecca Sideman in the University of New Hampshire Extension
- “Tomato Pruning” by Claire Strader and Lisa Johnson in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension
- “Determinate or Indeterminate—Choosing the Best Tomato for You and Your Garden” by y Raymond Schoenwandt in the UCCE Master Gardeners of El Dorado County