When she was only five or six, Julie-Anne Kelly would often be found in her neighbour’s garden.

“I would pick her flowers and I would try to sell her the bouquet,” she exclaims, laughing at the memory.

Fast-forward to today, however, and Julie-Anne is making a name for herself as “The Soulful Gardener”, creating dried floral wreaths, bouquets and other creations, which are in high demand for the festive season.

Except this time, every flower foraged is from her two-acre garden in Ballinakill, Co Laois, where she lives with her husband Eoin and 14 rescue animals; including four hens, a peacock and pen hen, four dogs, three cats and even a rescue pig called Bluebell.

Julie-Anne Kelly is a physiotherapist by day, but has a passion for gardening and wreath-making. \ Claire Nash

“I grew up around animals and seeing my parents rescue any animal that walked the road and I seem to have taken that on as well,” smiles Julie-Anne, as she pets Angel, her lurcher-terrier cross.

“I love it and I feel that they keep me right.”

Surviving sepsis

“The Soulful Gardener” is the latest chapter in Julie-Anne’s journey; one that has been full of twists and turns, but, ultimately, healing and hope.

From Castlecomer, Co Kilkenny, she originally trained as a nurse, but during her final year of college, ended up in hospital herself with multi-organ failure when she contracted sepsis after her “bowel was nicked” during what should have been a straight-forward procedure to drain a cyst on her ovary and remove her appendix.

Julie- Anne Kelly, pictured with one of her hand-made wreaths \ Claire Nash

“Gradually, just one organ after another shut down and I arrested, was ventilated and spent three months in hospital,” says Julie-Anne, who lost half her body weight during the ordeal.

Thankfully she turned a corner, but that brush with mortality at just 21 left a lasting impact.

“I look at life completely differently. I don’t sweat the little things. I let so much go,” she says. “And you really grab every opportunity, you take as much as you can, trying to be really present because you know that fine line [between life and death], you know how close you came and it was scary. It was a rough time.

Julie-Anne Kelly, pictured with one of her handmade wreaths. \ Claire Nash

“But what I would say is it has formed me as a person, the woman I am.”

It also informed her attitude as a healthcare professional.

After completing her nursing degree, Julie-Anne specialised in midwifery, before deciding to retrain as a physiotherapist, graduating from the Royal College of Surgeons in 2015. Today, she works with children with disabilities in the Spraoi Centre in Portlaoise.


“I equally know what it is to be the person in the bed, so I’m very conscious of that when I’m treating patients,” stresses Julie-Anne. “I know what it’s like. I know that vulnerability.”

Solace in the garden

Life-threatening illness is not the only challenge Julie-Anne would have to overcome, however.

After marrying Eoin, the couple built their dream home, Hazelbrook House.

Julie- Anne Kelly working on a dried floral wreath. \ Claire Nash

“And then the house subsided,” deadpans Julie-Anne, explaining that a “vein of sand” was later discovered running under one side of the house; with the result that it started “severing apart”.

“We’d be sitting here having a cup of tea and coffee and debris from the ceiling would be literally falling into your cup. We had a crack in the ceiling that wide that you could actually pass a knife or a scissors through a concrete floor up into the master bedroom upstairs. And we had this for 10 years.”

Dried floral bouquet. \ Claire Nash

While the issue was eventually resolved in 2018, Julie-Anne and Eoin decided to focus their attention on something that they could control: their garden.

“That was our survival. ‘Let’s not focus on the bad, let’s make this a beautiful garden,’ because we knew it had potential,” says Julie-Anne, explaining that they transformed the two-acre site “with two wheelbarrows and a lot of hard graft”.

Their approach was simple.

Julie- Anne Kelly with her rescue pig, Bluebell. \ Claire Nash

“We started out at the road and we worked our way in, and every year we’d allot a certain amount of money to the garden. So, we might have €500 one year and that was it,” says Julie-Anne.

“But myself and Eoin could be out till 11, 11.30 at night. We’d be out with bloody torches! That’s how committed we were. But I don’t regret it, it was time spent together the two of us, our relationship getting stronger. We could have fallen apart with a house that was falling apart. But it did the opposite. It solidified us.”

Dried flowers

While ever evolving, today the garden at Hazelbrook House is home to many special features; from a meadow that Julie-Anne has christened “The Ark” as a safe space for wildlife to a “secret garden”, cut flower and veg patches and, most recently, a pond.

Last year, it featured on the RTÉ show, Ireland’s Garden Heroes, which “opened up a whole world of people wanting to come and visit”. This in turn led to requests for Julie-Anne to put together bouquets for sale, followed by an invitation to take a stall at The Market at Mountain View in Co Kilkenny.

Dried flowers from Julie-Anne Kelly's garden. \ Claire Nash

“People were looking to book me for their wedding. I was like, ‘What is going on here?’” exclaims Julie-Anne. “It was like the universe is saying: ‘You are really good at this’. And it just snowballed from there.”

Which brings us to Christmas. Any flowers that Julie-Anne did not sell during the summer, she decided to dry instead, from dahlias and hydrangeas to strawflowers, poppy seed heads, pampas and pony grass.

“I hate waste,” she says. “So, I was learning then what dried well, what didn’t dry well and I used the flowers to start making wreaths and dried flower bouquets.”

Dried flowers from Julie-Anne Kelly's garden. \ Claire Nash

Sharing her work on Instagram, Julie-Anne was surprised that not only was she getting orders for her wreaths, she was also getting requests for workshops. Her next DIY session will take place in Ballinakill on 10 December, while she is also available for bespoke orders. The wreaths range from €80-€120 – which, as Julie-Anne jokes, includes “the sowing, the growing, the cutting, the drying, the beautifying”.

“No waste, no plastic, no hurting the environment,” she adds. “It’s a no-brainer.”

Dried flowers from Julie-Anne Kelly's garden. \ Claire Nash

Healing through creativity

But for Julie-Anne, it’s much more than that. At present, she works a four-day week as a physiotherapist, with Fridays off to focus on her creativity.

She explains that this has been especially important as a way to help cope after suffering a miscarriage last year, having struggled to conceive for many years previously due to the long-term effects of sepsis on her body.

She and Eoin decided to try IVF, but while the first round did not succeed, they were over the moon when they got a positive pregnancy test on the second try. Devastatingly, however, Julie-Anne had a miscarriage on Christmas Day.

Reflecting back on that time, Julie-Anne felt that she needed to take “a step back” from the all-consuming nature of IVF.

“I said to Eoin: ‘I’m not myself. I can’t connect with this person that I see,’” recalls Julie-Anne. “I was so happy-go-lucky, positive, and I have a great grá for life… I kind of felt that it was taking me away from who I am as a person.”

Instead, Julie-Anne decided to take a more holistic approach to her journey, but gardening and creativity have been crucial over the last year.

“We hope to try the IVF again, but for the moment I’m letting myself heal and I found the garden, my polytunnel, it just saved me,” she says.

“It gave me the quiet space to focus on minding the plants and taking that analogy back to myself and minding myself while doing that.

“I have to say it’s been amazing, just switching off to the whole world and not having any expectations of anything. And I do feel that I will be a parent someday. I’m still very hopeful.”

Long-term, another ambition is to be able to work in gardening and creativity full-time. ’Till then, Julie-Anne will continue to put her heart – and soul – into the soil.

“You’re never done in the garden,” she laughs. “That’s the one lesson you learn!”

Top tips on Making your own DIY wreath with Julie-Anne

  • You can buy a wreath base in many retail outlets, or create one yourself by tying branches e.g. cherry blossom, willow, or hazel, with 22 gauge floral wire. Alternatively, cut a long strip of chicken wire and place moss in the centre. Roll it over on itself, secure with floral wire and shape into a circle.
  • Next, gather your greenery. I like to work with lonicera, viburnum tinus, hebe or fir, but you can also forage from your own garden or hedgerows, or use holly or off-cuts from your Christmas tree.
  • \ Claire Nash

  • You can weave the greenery in through your base, securing it with floral wire, or create individual bunches with greenery and flowers and tie them in. You may require between 10 and 15 bunches to create a very full wreath. Play around with the spacing. You may lie the bunches on top of the base to get spacing accurate, with a slight overlap between the bunches.
  • I work with dried flowers from my own garden and you might be able to buy these from your local flower shop. If not, you could try drying a flower like anaphalis, which is a beautiful daisy-like flower. Simply cut and hang upside down. Hydrangeas also dry very well for wreaths, but the timing for cutting is essential: cut when firm to touch and dry in a vase. Dry in a room where there is no moisture or bright sunlight to retain colour. I dry in my airing cupboard or boot room. They should dry within two weeks; other flowers can take up to eight weeks to dry, like dahlias.
  • Alternatives to dried flowers include foraged acorns, pinecones, holly, cinnamon sticks and ribbons, which you can secure with floral wire.
  • Once complete, use a ribbon or floral wire to create a loop to hang your wreath. If you hang it outside, it will last much longer. If hanging inside, keep it away from direct heat sources and direct light.
  • Follow Julie-Anne on Instagram @thesoulfulgardenerlaois or call 087-758-7178.

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