How to Tell if Your Tomato Plant Is Determinate or Indeterminate

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Long leggy plants that need staking are usually indeterminate.
Image Credit: Zbynek Pospisil/iStock/GettyImages

How do you tell if your tomato plant is determinate or indeterminate, and what do those things mean? Tomatoes come in varieties with different growth habits. The fruits are grown on plants with a determinate, indeterminate and even semi-determinate manner. The manner of growth will determine if and how you will be pruning the plants. Pruning tomatoes is not necessary, but may increase the size of fruit marginally and will make the plants easier to manage.

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The difference between determinate and indeterminate ultimately boils down to the length of harvest and the time of harvest. Determinates produce fruit first, usually in a two- to three-week period, while indeterminate varieties will produce fruit for a longer period, but near the end of the summer.

Step 1: Inspect the Branching Formation

Look at the branching formation on your plants. If the branches are long with sparse foliage, they are likely indeterminate. A compact, bushy plant is determinate because it form flowers at the terminal end of the branch, which signals the stem to stop growing. You will need to stake an indeterminate plant or it will fall over when it bears fruit. Determinate plants rarely require staking but can benefit from a tomato cage for support.

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Step 2: Look for Suckers

Check for suckers at the base of your tomato plant and at the crotch of a leaved stem. These are small growth that will increase density in the tomato plant's crown, but will not flower and fruit. They need to be pruned out with hand pruners and they only happen on indeterminate plants. If they are left to grow, the plant may have mildew problems due to lack of air circulation, problems with fruit ripening because sunlight is not penetrating, and the suckers draw energy that would be better used on the fruit.

Step 3: Consider the Plant Height

Consider the height of the plant. Determinate varieties are usually only 2 to 3 feet tall. Indeterminate plants can get 6 feet tall and have numerous long branches. The determinate plants are also referred to as compact and usually have smaller fruit than indeterminate varieties. The smaller size can make determinate varieties better for container gardens. Some of the newer varieties of tomatoes are determinate while the older ones and many heirlooms are indeterminate.

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Step 4: Count the Flowers

Count how many flowers are in various stages and how many are simply mature and ready to fruit. The determinate plants will flower nearly all at once and set fruit that will be the one crop on the plant and will ripen at nearly the same time. Then the plant yellows and is finished. The indeterminate plant will have buds, flowers and flowers that have been pollinated all at once and the cycle will continue all season long.

Step 5: Read the Plant Tag

Check the plant tag to learn the variety when buying tomato plants. Some of the common indeterminate types grown in the home garden are: Brandywine, Early Girl and Mr. Stripey. Some determinates that have proven to do well in the home vegetable garden are: Celebrity, Small Fry and Oregon Spring.

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Bonnie Grant

Bonnie Grant began writing professionally in 1990. She has been published on various websites, specializing in garden-related instructional articles. Grant recently earned a Bachelor of Arts in business management with a hospitality focus from South Seattle Community College.