DETERMINATE VERSUS INDETERMINATE TOMATO PLANTS
When it comes to choosing tomato plants, it’s so tempting to focus only on the fruit size and color. But understanding the difference between determinate and indeterminate varieties will help you decide which plants are right for you.
Seed packages are usually marked as determinate or indeterminate. Nursery seedlings will also be labeled or marked “DET” (determinate) or “IND”(indeterminate). If they aren’t, the nursery staff can help.
The habit of a determinate tomato variety is to grow into a bush-type plant with a fixed height, although this may not be true for all of them. Once they reach about 3′ to 4′, the plants flower and then set fruit. This is all done in one fell swoop, and the tomatoes are harvested all at once.
Determinate varieties are great for gardeners who prefer less staking and trellising. Although a cage is usually still necessary, most of them need very little pruning—if any at all. Many hybrid or cultivated tomato plants are determinate.
For those interesting in canning or drying tomatoes, determinate varieties are a plus because the bounty is all ripe at the same time. Because of their set height, determinates are perfect for growing in containers.
An indeterminate plant is a vine, which means it continues to grow during the entire growing season. One could argue that “true” vines are those that can attach themselves to a support as they grow, but that’s merely a technicality (you say tomato…). The fact is that they tend to grow like a beanstalk as long as they’re offered support.
Indeterminate vines can reach up to 12′ tall and will potentially take up a lot of space unless they’re pruned. Staking or caging is a must, and they’ll need continued support with ties or by trellising throughout production. That said, with good pruning, they’re very controllable in a small-space garden setting.
Determinates might be more compact, but indeterminate varieties have a lot going for them in their own right. These productive vines produce a higher fruit yield per square foot compared to their bushy cousins, and they win the taste test every time. In general, their tomatoes are bigger and tastier, and they continue to produce right up until a hard frost kills them. Most heirloom tomato varieties are indeterminate plants.
Indeterminate tomato varieties are perfect for the gardener who would like to use them periodically throughout the season, such as adding them to sandwiches, salads, or as side dishes. Plant more of them if you’d like to can, as well.
Best Bets: Tomato Varieties
For your vertical garden, you’ll mostly be looking for indeterminate tomato varieties. But I’ve added some determinate types because although they won’t climb much, they do grow up and some are taller than others. So they still can be very much a part of a vertical vegetable garden.
Black Krim. Indeterminate; dark, red-purple fruit; juicy, fabulous tomato flavor; 69 to 90 days to harvest
Brandywine. Indeterminate; comes in red or pink varieties; a beefsteak tomato gardener favorite; sweet tomato flavor; 90 days to harvest
Celebrity. Determinate; very reliable plant with large, red fruit; average tomato flavor; 70 days to harvest
Dad’s Sunset. Indeterminate; golden-orange fruit; zesty flavor; 75 days to harvest
Early Girl. Indeterminate; 4 oz. meaty, red fruit; early season; strong tomato flavor; 75 days to harvest
Isis Candy. Indeterminate; cherry tomatoes with marbled red-gold color; super sweet flavor; 67 days to harvest
Paul Robeson. Indeterminate; black brick color; smoky, sweet, rich flavor; 90 days to harvest
Pineapple. Indeterminate; yellow skin, red marbled flesh; sweet, fruity flavor; 75 to 95 days to harvest
Purple Cherokee. Indeterminate; dark pink-purple color; super sweet flavor; 80 days to harvest
Roma VF. Determinate; one of the best paste tomato varieties; pear-shaped fruit and high yield; 75 days to harvest
San Marzano. Indeterminate; a favorite paste tomato; red; 80 days to harvest Stupice. Indeterminate but rarely grows above 4′ tall; great salad tomato; red with gold undertones; 55 to 65 days to harvest
Sun Gold. Indeterminate; apricot-orange colored cherry tomatoes; fruity flavor; 65 days to harvest
GOOD TO KNOW
When purchasing tomato plants, you may have noticed some letters on the plant’s tag next to the variety name such as “VFF” or VFN.” Each letter stands for a specific disease that the tomato plant variety has been bred to resist:
V = Verticillium wilt
F and FF = Fusarium wilt
N = Nematodes
T = Tobacco mosaic virus
A = Alternaria leaf spot
For example, if a tomato plant has the letter “V” next to its name (such as “Oregon Spring V”), it tells you the plant is bred to resist Verticillium wilt, which commonly attacks (and destroys) tomato crops.
Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum)
I don’t think that anyone will argue when I say that tomatoes are the darlings of the American vegetable garden. I’m okay with that because I’m as smitten as anybody else.
If you’re planting seeds, start them indoors 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date. Seedlings can be planted in their permanent bed as soon as all danger of frost has passed and soil temps are between 55°F and 60°F. Outside temperatures need to be about 45°F or higher.
I give tomatoes about 3′ of space all to themselves. It’s been adequate for prepared beds—especially when they’re given support with stakes or cages. Tomatoes adore sunbathing, so plant them in an area that has full sun.
Tomatoes do enjoy a rich soil high in organic matter, so I give it to them. This means that other than adding compost regularly, I typically don’t give them a lot of fertilizer. Get them off to a good start by adding some evenly-balanced fertilizer into the planting hole along with some compost. Some gardeners also add a handful of pelletized lime, which helps to ward off blossom end rot as well as to sweeten the soil if it’s a little too acidic.
A handful of bone meal is another gardener favorite for the tomato planting hole because it also combats blossom end rot as it offers calcium to the plant. After planting, I prefer not to give them anything else until the first few blossoms appear or even some fruit. I’ve found that when they receive too much nitrogen early on I get tons of leaves and very little fruit.
They do enjoy a well-balanced meal every so often, so once I see production on the horizon I’ll apply some organic fertilizer, such as fish emulsion, about every 2 weeks until the plant stops producing. But most of the time I forget.