Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) naturally grow into short, bushy plants or tall vines, depending on their type. Tomato varieties are classified as determinate, indeterminate, semi-determinate and dwarf indeterminate. Grow determinate tomatoes, also called bush tomatoes, and they will reach 2 to 3 feet tall. Indeterminate (vining) tomatoes grow up to 6 feet tall.
Vining tomatoes can be grown as short and bushy plants if their central stems are pruned. Semi-determinate or semi-bush varieties grow 3 to 5 feet tall, while dwarf indeterminate, or dwarf vining plants, grow to the same height as bush tomatoes.
Provide Enough Growing Room
Short, bushy tomatoes need deep, moist, fertile soil and plenty of room to grow into healthy plants. Grow bush tomatoes and other tomato types in full sun in organically rich soil. Space the plants according to type. Plant bush varieties 12 to 24 inches apart and vining varieties 24 to 36 inches apart.
If you're growing vining tomatoes, space them 24 to 48 inches apart in rows 4 to 5 feet apart. Alternatively, space tomatoes according to the final growing dimensions on the seed packet or plant label. For example, space plants of a variety that grows 2 feet wide 2 feet apart.
Water and Fertilize Regularly
For plentiful, disease-free tomatoes, water the plants regularly and apply fertilizer. Tomatoes need 1 inch of water or more per week in dry weather. Avoid wetting the leaves when watering to help prevent leaf diseases. Water deeply but infrequently when the soil surface is dry. Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch, such as garden compost, to help conserve soil moisture.
When the tomato fruits are about 1 inch in diameter, apply 1/2 cup of 5-10-5 fertilizer per plant. Work it 1 inch into the soil or mulch surface, taking care not to disturb the plant roots. Apply the same amount of fertilizer when you pick the first fruits.
Prune and Provide Adequate Support
Most tomato varieties can grow as short, bushy plants with the right pruning and support. Bush and dwarf vining varieties don't need pruning because they naturally grow into short bushes, but the plants benefit from a supporting cage. Place a tomato cage over the plants after transplanting them to a container or the soil. You can find tomato cages at Home Depot, Amazon and Walmart.
To grow vining and semi-bush tomatoes as short, bushy plants, prune the central stems when the plants reach the desired height. Wipe your pruning shear blades with a cloth dipped in rubbing alcohol, then prune the stems above the second set of leaves that lie beneath stem tips.
Tomatoes often produce shoots, called suckers, where the side stems meet the central stem. Prune suckers in the same way when they reach the desired length. Staking is usually recommended for vining tomatoes, but this isn't needed when growing them as short, bushy plants. Pruning short tomatoes is not necessary.
When to Harvest Tomatoes
Harvest times for short, bushy tomatoes vary according to the variety. Tomatoes produce a crop about 65 days to 80 days after sowing. Plants that produce crops quickly are called early varieties. Mid-season varieties produce a crop in 65 to 80 days, and late-season varieties fruit in 80 days or more.
Bush tomatoes are often grown for canning or freezing, because they usually produce their crops within a six-week period, then they stop fruiting and die back. Vining, semi-bush and dwarf vining tomatoes produce crops throughout the growing season.