Phenolic compounds are secondary metabolites involved in plant innate chemical defence against pests and diseases. Their concentration varies depending on plant tissue and also on genetic and environmental factors, e.g. availability of nutrient resources. This study examines specific effects of low (LN) and high (HN) nitrogen supply on organ (root, stem and leaf) growth and accumulation of major phenolics [chlorogenic acid (CGA); rutin; kaempferol rutinoside (KR)] in nine hydroponically grown tomato cultivars. LN limited shoot growth but did not affect root growth, and increased concentrations of each individual phenolic in all organs. The strength of the response was organ-dependent, roots being more responsive than leaves and stems. Significant differences were observed between genotypes. Nitrogen limitation did not change the phenolic content in shoots, whereas it stimulated accumulation in roots. The results show that this trade-off between growth and defence in a LN environment can be discussed within the framework of the growth–differentiation balance hypothesis (i.e. GDBH), but highlight the need to integrate all plant organs in future modelling approaches regarding the impact of nitrogen limitation on primary and secondary metabolism.