Do the terms determinate, indeterminate, heirloom, and hybrid confuse you? You are not alone. Tomato terminology can be tricky to memorize. Here is what you need to know to choose the right tomato variety for your garden this spring.

Tomato terminology can get a little confusing. If you have a hard time keeping track of determinate vs indeterminate tomatoes and heirloom vs hybrid tomatoes, you are not alone. Here is what you need to know to simplify your tomato quandaries.

Determinate Tomatoes

Determinate tomatoes are exactly what they sound like. These height of these bush-type tomatoes is determined, or predetermined, if you prefer, and the plants produce a certain number of tomatoes during a relatively short window of time. Nothing you can do will coax them into giving you an eternal harvest. There are advantages to this, of course. The concentrated harvest, which usually happens all within 3-4 weeks, gives you an abundance that is easy to plan for and appealing to those of us who enjoy canning, freezing and processing tomatoes. The short, bushy plants are ideal for smaller gardens and container gardening and do well in tomato cages. Determinate tomatoes are fairly low maintenance. Since these plants grow to a set height, excessive pruning can negatively impact their growth.

Just because these tomatoes have a limit doesn't mean your harvest has to end. Choose a selection of early, mid-season, and late season tomato varieties for a continual harvest all summer long.

Determinate tomato varieties:

- Set growth limits

- Set growing time frame

- One bulk harvest over a 3-4 week period

- Minimal pruning

- Perfect for canning, freezing, and processing

- Ideal container tomatoes

Indeterminate Tomatoes

Indeterminate tomatoes do not have determined limits. These tomato vines continue to grow and produce fruit all season, stopping only when colder weather or disease ends their productive lives. This means that keeping these tomatoes contained is a little trickier than with determinate varieties. Left to themselves, indeterminate tomatoes will sprawl all over your garden, making them more labor intensive than determinate varieties. Trellising and pruning will keep indeterminate varieties productive all season so that your kitchen is never tomato-less.

The growth patterns of indeterminate tomatoes makes them better suited to medium sized gardens and larger containers. If you grow indeterminate tomatoes in a container, make sure to provide plenty of organic material and fertilizer over the course of the season. Cherry tomatoes and beefsteak tomato varieties tend to be indeterminate, which is convenient for summer snacking and slicing.

Indeterminate tomato varieties:

- No set height

- Grows continuously over the season

- Continuous fruit production

- Requires pruning

- Ideal for fresh eating and salad varieties

Heirloom Tomatoes

One of the decisions gardeners have to make is growing heirloom or hybrid tomato varieties. Both heirloom and hybrid varieties have distinct advantages.

"Heirloom" is a way to classify a specific type of tomato. Heirloom varieties are open pollinated (OP), which means they are true to their type from their own seed. A seed from an heirloom variety will grow into an almost identical plant. These varieties have been cultivated and reproduced for generations, and some heirlooms have histories that span several hundred years. Heirlooms come in both determinate and indeterminate varieties.

Many gardeners consider heirlooms to be more flavorful than hybrid tomatoes, and many of us love their individuality, which shows itself in unique shapes and colors. This individuality is not everyone's cup of tea. Some gardeners and consumers prefer the uniformity that comes with hybrid tomatoes, and heirlooms typically take a little longer to mature and produce fewer fruits than hybrids.

Disease resistance is a topic of debate among proponents of hybrid vs heirloom tomato varieties. Heirloom enthusiasts argue that heirloom varieties developed resistance over time, thanks to selective breeding. Hybrid variety producers point out that hybrids developed for disease resistance perform better than heirlooms, especially in the case of late blight. (In my experience, it is a good idea to grow both blight resistant tomato varieties and heirloom varieties for an assured tomato crop. Heirlooms might be superior in flavor, but I would prefer a hybrid tomato over no tomato at all!)

Heirloom tomatoes:

- Open pollinated

- Unique fruits

- Superior flavor

- Long history


Hybrid Tomatoes

Hybrid tomatoes are classified as tomato varieties developed by crossing two genetically different parent varieties. The premise is that hybrids get the best qualities of both parent varieties, along with hybrid vigor. Hybrid tomatoes tend to be more productive than heirlooms, more disease resistant, and better able to produce in inclement weather and challenging growing conditions.

An F1 label on a tomato packet means that the variety is a first generation hybrid. In other words, both parent varieties were non-hybrid varieties. F2 seed varieties are the next generation, (the offspring of the F1 generation) and so on.

Hybrid tomatoes are consistent, which makes them popular with commercial producers. Hybrids tend to produce relatively uniform tomatoes in both size and shape and with fewer blemishes, which makes them easier to market. Hybrids also last longer off the vine than heirlooms, which makes it easier to transport and ship them without damaging the crop. Heirlooms are prone to bruising and do not keep as well.

The downside of hybrid tomato varieties is flavor and reproduction. While many varieties are delicious, most gardeners, myself included, argue that nothing beats the taste of a ripe heirloom. Over time, the quality of the offspring produced by saved hybrid tomato seeds lose their vigor, although some gardeners claim they save their hybrid seeds without much deviation from type.

Hybrid tomatoes:

- Cross between two different tomato types

- Productive

- Disease resistant

- Keep better after harvest than heirlooms

- Consistent in size and shape

Choosing the right tomato variety

Choosing the right tomato variety should be much easier, now that you understand the differences between determinate vs indeterminate tomatoes and heirloom vs hybrid tomatoes. Look at the label on the seed packet to pick out the key words: Hybrid (F1), Heirloom, Open Pollinated (OP), Determinate (DET), and Indeterminate (IND). Once you find those, then choose the variety with the maturation date and type that suits your needs and get your tomato seedlings started.