(VOORHEES, NJ) The best Jersey fresh heirloom tomatoes in Voorhees, and maybe even New Jersey, are not available for purchase at your local farmer’s market or Whole Foods. Instead, they are found adorning the Serenade deck at Brandywine Living at Voorhees and finding their way into South Jersey hobby gardens thanks to one man.
Say hello to Joseph Matarese, Sr. or “Tomato Joe,” as he has been nicknamed by friends and his expanding urban-style tomato empire. Joe is a resident of Brandywine Living at Voorhees and his move to the senior living community hasn’t impeded his gardening hobby, it has given it new life.
Joe and his wife Emma moved into Brandywine Living at Voorhees during its opening in 2013. His time was spent with his wife of almost 70 years and when she lost her battle with dementia, it left Joe wondering what to do next. That following spring, his full attention and care turned to another long-time love, his beloved heirloom tomato seeds.
An average day for “Tomato Joe,” a decorated WWII Veteran: Army 79th Engineer, Combat Battalion; served in the Asiatic Pacific Theater of Operations and 2-time Purple Heart recipient, centers around tending to his heirloom tomatoes, which required initial problem solving to start-up. After the war, Joe had an esteemed career as a designer and manufacturer. He had a reputation for coming up with solutions others couldn’t find and still does.
The first summer of “Operation Tomato,” as he calls it, started off small with one self-watering container planter. It was a challenge at first due to no water access on the deck, for example, but the spot would get an ideal amount of sunlight and would not be vulnerable to squirrels, rabbits or deer. So, as he always does, he came up with a way to make it work.
“I like challenges. When everyone else throws up their hands and says ‘It just can’t be done,’ that’s when I want it,” said Joe.
Brandywine staff worked hard to help him realize his vision and now Joe is able to completely care for the plants without assistance. Each year, he tweaks his set-up to make the “operation” a little bigger and better for next year. Three years later the tomato operation has grown to four planters that are already towering at six feet high!
Joe revealed that the secret to his beautiful and delicious heart shaped heirlooms are in the seeds. “These seeds were brought over from Italy by my brother over 50 years ago. My family has grown them since then. My first garden was started in the 1960’s in the suburb of Mt. Holly,” he said, proudly.
This year Joe had a very special plan for his first ripened tomatoes of the season; he wanted to gift them to Brenda J. Bacon, President and CEO of Brandywine Living. Of course, no one turns down Joe’s tomatoes.
“My family thoroughly enjoyed Joe’s creations with dinner that evening,” said Brenda J. Bacon, President and CEO of Brandywine Living.
The tomato operation is rightfully taken very seriously, with special boxes and labels for packaging. Residents, staff, and families find themselves with boxes of ripe tomatoes grown from Joe’s green thumb every season. Not to mention saplings grown indoors to share with young gardening enthusiasts who want to start their own garden.
“Anyone who shows an interest is soon lucky enough to receive a hands-on lesson from Joe, during which he’ll pass along the tips and secrets of success. All his years of experiences, lessons learned, and knowledge acquired along the way is passed on to the younger generations. Heirloom indeed!” said Rebecca Lentine, Reflections Coordinator at Brandywine Living at Voorhees, who is now growing her own garden thanks to Joe.
About Brandywine Living
Brandywine Living (formerly Brandywine Senior Living) is a market leader in luxury senior living, including assisted living, memory care and independent living. Founded in 1996, and headquartered in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, Brandywine currently operates 28 communities in five states (PA, NJ, NY, CT & DE) with capacity to serve over 3,000 residents. www.brandywineliving.com