What are "Determinate" and "Indeterminate" Tomatoes?

Tomato Flower.png

Buying a tomato plant is a little like buying a dog; the more you know
ahead of time about the type the happier you'll be later.  In the dog
world, the first question is "pure bred" or "rescue".  With tomatoes,
the first question is "determinate" or "indeterminate".  With a pure
bred puppy, you'll know the general personality traits and size of the
animal you'll be adopting.  Adopt a rescue pup, and you'll have to wait
until the dog is full grown to know what you have.

DeterminateTomato.png

Tomato blossom photo above and this photo courtesy of Damien Casten

Determinates are the "pure breds" of the tomato world because you know what you are in for.  A determinate variety will grow into a bush likely to max out at four to six feet tall, can be grown well in a medium size cage, and will produce fruit during a specific period of time.  Calculate roughly when the fruit of determinates will come from information on the seed packet or the tag that comes with the plant and you can prepare for a weekend of harvesting, eating, and preserving.  I find the all at once nature of determinates a little risky, and to be honest, I prefer the flavor of most indeterminates, but then I also adopted a rescue, so maybe that's my personality.

Indeterminates, like rescued dogs can be a bit wild.  These are vines that will grow up as long as they are allowed.  Plan carefully.  You'll need more room for an indeterminate, and you'll have to pay closer attention.  Pruning the suckers, or small shoots, off of indeterminates helps to limit their vigor.    Most tomatoes are indeterminates so you'll find many more varieties to grow, including most all heirloom tomatoes, which to me are the most flavorful, interesting, and fun.  Additionally, indeterminate tomatoes will continue to set and ripen fruit until the first frost, so you can expect a larger window of time when the plant will produce. You'll also need to stake these plants.

Guest post by: Damien Casten is a co-founder of Candid Wines, Chicagoland's first and, he believes, only wine distribution company focused entirely on small production organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wineries.  He came to wine through great food, having worked as a Chef in Paris for two years. He is also the founder of Chicago TomatoFest. Chicago TomatoFest was born out of his inability to plant a reasonable and limited amount of heirloom tomato varieties and his subsequent need to share what he couldn't eat, dry, or freeze.Please send pictures and updates at Damien@candidwines.com, and I'll share the stories on the TomatoFest blog.  Then, come early September join us at The Chicago Honey Coop for TomatoFest. Photo credit: Top: Cuor di Bue tomato blossom. Bottom: Granny Cantrell German by Damien Casten.

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  • If you're participating in Chicago Tomato Fest and you use Twitter you can use the #TomatoFest hashtag to ask questions and hopefully get some answers there too.

  • I'm trying 11 varieties of heirloom tomatoes (all indeterminate) this year... will report back with favorites!

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    You're trying 11?!?! Wow, that's so crazy. You'll be able to save your seeds and start your own tomato seed company. :0) Please do let me know which ones you liked best.

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