Determinate vs. Indeterminate – What it means

One term new gardeners will likely encounter is determinate vs indeterminate. What does this mean? It’s really pretty simple on the surface, regardless of a complex biological background. The science driving the growth patterns is fascinating.

Nothing beats the joy of slicing into a home-grown tomato. They are juicy and sweet and a joy to eat by themselves or in a recipe. They are what brought me to gardening. There are so many varieties, each with their own up and down sides from the aspect of growing and how they are used in the kitchen.

sliced tomatoes on a plate

Indeterminate growth won’t stop until the weather tells it to… usually a frost snap. In an indeterminate tomato, the main stem just keeps on going and going, like the energizer bunny. Fruit growth will be all along the stem. Determinate tomatoes will produce fruit throughout the entire season, with individual tomatoes ripening at different times, providing an ongoing supply of fresh ones.

While 6 foot is normal, indeterminate tomatoes are capable of reaching heigths of up to 10-12 feet and require a garden bed or other large area so they can spread out. They are best supported with a trellis or a substantial staking system, or will require a large cage. These plants are very ammenable to pruning and can be focused to just a few steps. To promote production, you can remove the suckers up to the first flower cluster.

Determinate plants on the other hand are very finite in their structure. The main stem will end at a flower point and that’s as far as it goes. Once a determinate plant produces a fruit at that end point, it’s done. All of the tomatoes tend to ripen at about the same time, typically within a week or so from first fruit, until done. They also tend to be an earlier producer and are set out sooner in the season.

Determinate tomato plants tend to be bush-like and compact, typically reaching heights of no more than 3-4 feet. They often do well with just a support stake or a tomato cage. Pruning is usually not necessary or desirable for these plants. These varieties are ideal for container gardening.

While this term seems more prevalent in regard to tomatoes, other plants such as cucumbers, strawberries, beans, peas and more can also be either determinate or indeterminate. In all cases, the best bet is to do your homework on the variety you want to grow so you can give them the proper environment to thrive and produce to their full potential.

Happy Gardening!

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