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May 24th, 2012

Deliciously Indeterminate

At the garden center I see different varieties of tomatoes described as “determinate” and “indeterminate.” Which kind tastes better?

blog-dougWhen in doubt, go for the indeterminates. The two terms describe general growth habits of tomato plants. The wild ancestors of tomatoes, as well as many older heirloom varieties, are indeterminate. Their stems continue to grow indefinitely, continually cranking out new flowers and fruits a few at a time, until they are mowed down by frost or blight. The tall, rangy growth of indeterminate tomatoes requires a staking system or cages to keep the “vines” and maturing fruits off the ground. Because the fruits are produced over a long harvest season, indeterminate tomatoes are a good choice for home gardeners.

Determinate tomatoes, on the other hand, grow to a genetically predestined height, then stop. Their harvest period is shorter and more intense, allowing commercial growers to harvest a crop all at once. Compared to indeterminate tomatoes, determinates are a recent innovation, often bred to emphasize the shipping and mechanical-harvesting characteristics needed by commercial farmers instead of the culinary qualities desired by consumers.

There are good reasons to include determinate tomato varieties in your garden. Some of the best early varieties are determinate, as well as certain varieties recommended for cool-summer climates. Small-space gardeners appreciate the compact habit of determinate varieties, which can even be grown in containers. But in general, you’ll find better flavor among the indeterminates.  —Doug Hall

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