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Like many South Jersey residents, Joseph Matarese, Sr., spends a good portion of his day tending to his heirloom tomatoes. But you won’t find tomatoes like his in your backyard, or even at your local farmers’ market or Whole Foods.

Brandywine Living President & CEO, Brenda J. Bacon, with Joe Matarese, Sr.

The secret to the special taste of his tomatoes? Special seeds, says Matarese.

Over 50 years ago, his brother brought seeds over from Italy, and the family has grown the plant ever since. Matarese started his first garden in the 1960s in the suburbs of Mount Holly.

Today, the World War II veteran’s work can only be found on the Serenade deck at Brandywine Living at Voorhees, where his four self-watering container planters grow six-feet-high tomato crops.

When Matarese decided to begin “Operation Tomato,” as he calls it, he ran into some trouble. The Serenade deck was the perfect location, but there was no water access. So Matarese got to work.

“I like challenges,” says Matarese – nicknamed “Tomato Joe” by his friends. “When everyone else throws up their hands and says ‘It just can’t be done,’ that’s when I want it.”

He constructed the self-watering planters that inhabit the deck today with some help from Brandywine staff, and now, he 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.

The tomato operation is taken very seriously, with special boxes and labels for packaging. Residents, staff and families find themselves with boxes of ripe tomatoes grown from Matarese’s green thumb every season – he even grows saplings indoors to share with young gardening enthusiasts who want to start their own garden.

The latest recipient of Matarese’s first tomatoes of the season was Brandywine Living President and CEO, Brenda J. Bacon – and she wasn’t disappointed. “My family thoroughly enjoyed Joe’s creations with dinner that evening.”

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