It was so cute at the store, but it ate my garden (a Tomato Story)

by Kim Benton Contributing writer

We have all seen them: Little unassuming 6-packs of transplants waving cheerily in the breeze, or single 4-inch pots of stout contenders for the tomato row, saying “Pick me! Pick me!”

And we do.

We select them, take them home, plant them, pray over them and watch them grow, but not all of them are polite about it. The small-fruited tomatoes almost always want to take over because of their indeterminate nature. If you have ever grown a Sweet 100 cherry tomato, you know what I am talking about.

Tomatoes come in 3 basic growth habits. Determinate, which means they reach a certain height and then stop growing. Indeterminate, which means they continue to grow and produce tomatoes all along the stems throughout the growing season; and semi-determinate, which means they still have indeterminate growth, but they are more compact, generally not reaching more than 6 feet.

Many of our southern garden standards – like Homestead – are determinate. Also considered a bush tomato, these determinates make sturdy vines that will still need to be staked in order to keep the fruit from laying over on the ground. The vines are generally 4-foot tall or smaller, and this allows for easier planning and harvesting in the garden. Some other commonly grown determinate examples are Roma, Rutgers, Patio, and Ace 55.

Meanwhile, indeterminate tomatoes always need a stake. A tall stake, possibly several of them. One indeterminate tomato can grow 6 feet or more of vine, and most of the smaller fruiting tomatoes tend to be indeterminate. It makes for wonderful snacking in the garden (because who doesn’t love bite-size tomatoes warm from the sun?) but can be troublesome if not staked or caged. Prolific, but impolite and a space-hog.

Don’t let the growth habit scare you away though. Some of the most delightful tomatoes grow on indeterminate vines. Cherokee Purple is considered indeterminate – 10- to 12-ounce delicious fruit, and a good producer for us here in East Texas.

Also, Kellogg’s Breakfast and Brandywine are considered indeterminate, and pack a big punch both in size and flavor. Sweet 100’s, Yellow Pear, Juliet, and Brad’s Atomic are all strong examples of the extremely prolific growth and production possibilities of small indeterminate tomatoes. They will need a sturdy cage or stakes.

Semi-determinate is a bit of the best of both of worlds. The more continual production of stems and blooms than determinate tomatoes, but they are fairly polite about it. Celebrity is an excellent example of this growth habit. Strong vining plant that doesn’t take over your bed, vigorous growth and a good crop, providing that the plants are given full sun, and plenty of water and fertilizer. San Marzano is another lovely semi-determinate variety.

No matter your available space, there is a tomato that you can grow if you have 8 hours of full sun and plenty of water and fertilizer. Tomatoes grow very well in a container, and work well in a raised bed. Now is the perfect time to plant since we are generally past the danger of frost (tomatoes will not tolerate frost or freeze). Plant transplants into well drained soil and water in with a dilute fertilizer mix (at half strength). Give them consistent water and fertilize regularly once fruit starts to appear.