Haven: Transplanting love of gardening to Shore home

The backyard of Liz Donaghy and Jamie Mullen's home in Longport is filled with potted plants. "My parents were gardeners," Liz said. "They had a plot at the Morris Arboretum."
The backyard of Liz Donaghy and Jamie Mullen's home in Longport is filled with potted plants. "My parents were gardeners," Liz said. "They had a plot at the Morris Arboretum." (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 29, 2013

Six years ago, Liz Donaghy got the chance few get, and even fewer take:

She reinvented herself.

Her midlife metamorphosis consisted of the following: She and her partner, Jamie Mullen, exchanged their first-floor brownstone apartment in Philadelphia's Fairmount section for a bungalow in Longport, at the Jersey Shore.

Liz, now 42, stopped selling investments and began growing sweet peas, sorrel, and more than 250 other plants on the couple's new property, many of them for her new gardening business. Her professional wardrobe was mostly donated to others, to make room in her closet for denim, comfy shirts, wide-brimmed hats, and designed-to-love-mud footwear.

Goodbye, wealth-investment consultant. Hello, Garden Goddess by the Sea.

The one common denominator, besides Jamie, between her old and new selves is Liz's love of gardening: She had pots in Fairmount, where she grew annuals and vegetables. She comes by those dirty fingernails in a self-taught, familial way.

"My parents were gardeners. They had a plot at the Morris Arboretum," she says.

It wasn't that Liz hated the life she had; the apartment was comfortable, and her career made her life equally so. But she was ambivalent about the career; it wasn't exactly her idea of a good time.

What pushed her from on-the-fence to get-me-out was an entrepreneurship conference she attended at which a speaker talked about giving up personal life for the business.

"That was like a lightbulb moment," she says. "I realized: 'I don't think this is a business I want to trade my life for.' "

About the same time, the couple were visiting Jamie's mother in Longport and learned that the man next door wanted to sell his bungalow. They made him an offer, and he took it.

They didn't want to keep both the Fairmount apartment and the Longport house, Liz says. Longport would become home.

"[It's] just a special place to live," says Jamie, 54. "And who wouldn't want to be here for summer, when all the summer people come down with all their joy and enthusiasm for the beach. I mean, who has a bad day at the beach?"

It was Jamie, who would be continuing to commute to his Center City independent investment-management firm, who suggested that Liz start her gardening business.

"Jamie said, 'You love gardening.' Isn't it amazing that he saw it?" she asks.

So over the years, Liz has been building her business and establishing the house. She describes her taste as "Bohemian, but not flighty-out-there-weird."

"A lot of this stuff has been with me since [my first apartment]," she says.

The Longport bungalow is comfortable and welcoming. Jamie's surfboard stands by a living room window. The pieces that are new speak to Liz's openness to redesigning the space.

Get an offer from a client to take a distressed green curio cabinet off her hands? Absolutely. It's now in the dining room, with the bamboo dining chairs (left by the previous homeowner) and the wood table. But that could change: Liz is thinking of refocusing the room around the cabinet.

Meanwhile, the flowered pattern on the chairs matches the curtains; she covered them with a leftover drapery panel.

"I'm not a real curtain person," she says, "but they were free."

A request to another friend to find a farmer's table produced the real thing. It takes up most of the kitchen space, along with Liz's 75 cookbooks. It's anything but a modern-looking kitchen, despite the juicer on the counter. The couple installed ceiling tin as a backsplash near the stove.

Hurricane Sandy found its way into the house, but it wasn't too intrusive - three inches of water in the laundry room.

"We were so close, so lucky," Liz says. They did have to replace the washer and dryer, though.

Perhaps her favorite place in the house is the deep-soak tub in the master bath; Jamie insisted she have one, in recognition of her hard work.

A word or 50 about the garden: Succulents, green beans, corn, blueberries, edible cardoon, zinnias, an aloha rose (from Fairmount), eggplant, loads of greens, artichokes, Italian parsley, and more.

And tomatoes, lots of them. "Why two people need 18 tomato plants, I don't know," she says.

Now in the seventh year of her metamorphosis, Liz admits that the change is ongoing. After all, Longport is not the big city.

"I am still adjusting," she says.

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