In a rented house in Mt Albert, Selena Clarke has created a garden which next month features in the Heroic Garden Festival. Forced to live alone at 14, the mother of four says gardens have often been her salvation.

1. You've put down real roots in this home: how did you create such an amazing garden?

Renting can be hard for creative people because we want to enhance beauty and you're not allowed to change much, but gardening is one way you really can do that. When my daughters and I first moved in we heard that the man who owned the house had passed unexpectedly and the home had been empty for a year. That really moved me. The backyard was huge and the weeds were up to our waists, which suited my plan to honour the spirit of this person and to feed my family. Now we grow artichokes, pumpkins, corn, bananas, silverbeet, peas, potatoes. The message really is that it's all so easy. My next-door neighbours are music teachers and I hear the piano in the garden, or a Chinese instrument, so I planted to create a lovely view for them from their windows, too. As a way for both of us to have that beauty. I've got chickens, too, and I'm not a vegetarian but I can't eat the meat.

2. Have you always made gardens?

I met a man when I was 18 and got married and that was when I put down my first garden. It was beautiful. [Gardening] came from my grandparents really. When I was 4 I was placed with them on a farm in Ngaruawahia. It saved my life. I was surrounded by nature, animals. They weren't perfect people but they were good people, stable. Granddad was the Methodist minister and they could be judgemental. But I always say anything good in me came from them. They took me into the bush. I was never held back or taught to keep my clothes clean or fear strangers. At 11 I was sent over to my parents in Australia.

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3. Do you remember much of life before your grandparents?

I don't remember many of the details but I believe that my ongoing fear of mourning and aloneness came from those early years. There were several different homes. My father died when I was about 1. He was only 24. My mother had taken me but in the end it was my maternal grandparents who saved me. When I was 11 my mother sent for me again. She was living in Australia. It was absolutely dreadful and I had thought it would be wonderful. I expected to have a mother and that wasn't what happened. It was clear from the beginning that I was an inconvenience. I re-learned fear. I don't know why they got me but it wasn't to do with being a mother.

4. How long did you stay?

I had three years of it then I moved into a flat at 14. I didn't have a choice. I was working in a boutique but I expected to die really. Life was dangerous and I was ill-equipped to survive. I think what that time has given me is empathy towards people. Despite what happened, and when there were court cases, I asked that my parents didn't go to prison. I didn't want that to happen. Life was a real struggle until my mid-20s. Those early years were really about surviving, mentally and financially, just trying to find a way of feeling that I had some value.

5. Did you tell your grandparents about what happened?

I couldn't. My grandfather passed away not long after I was sent over there and I couldn't put my grandmother in that situation. I did years later and I think she was very shocked.

6. What saved you, do you think?

One thing I have always found comfort in is nature. There's nothing more exciting than coming out in the morning and seeing a fresh shoot or something that's grown overnight or is starting to blossom. You bring that back to yourself, and see that there is hope. Things aren't constant and they are always improving, if you nurture them well enough. I have also had amazing friends, really wonderful people.

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7. You have four daughters yourself - what kind of mum have you been?

When you haven't been mothered yourself, it doesn't always come naturally. Just because you have a baby born to you, it doesn't just magically change who you are. A lot of us stumble, and work it out as we go. At this point in my life I do feel like I'm totally a good mum. My children would say I always have been, but I don't see that myself.

8. What are your tattoos?

We came back to New Zealand in 2000 and it had so much meaning to me. Coming home was powerful because all of a sudden I was safe. I'd come back to that place that was beautiful, before it was tough again. A lot of my tattoos are to do with courage and having the wisdom to make the right choices, to progress. We are all riddled with fear, I think, but it is courage that makes us go forward in life.

9. What is your greatest achievement?

I said this to a friend the other day. Other than my daughters, who are all wonderful, beautiful people, I think it is to always keep loving other people no matter what. To be discerning about people, but not to judge. You never know what is behind someone's behaviour, how their beliefs were formed.

10. What is love to you?

Love is a truth that we find in someone or something. Love is not just for the well-behaved or the aesthetically beautiful or the safe. It is found in our ability to resonate with something we recognise.

11. Your garden is in the Heroic Festival next month, which raises money for Hospice. What's your connection there?

Many years back I met a dear friend by the name of Peter Taylor. He was an equestrian [he had coached an Olympic team], owned and ran Dorothy's Sister bar in Ponsonby, [and] wrote motivational books, yet even in the most fabulous party he would make you feel that you were the only person in the room. Pete also happened to have HIV and Leishmaniasis disease which last year took his life. In his final days he chose Mercy Hospice as his place to be because of their incredible reputation. Pete also was a fabulous gardener and grew far better vegetables than most of us.

12. There are a lot of Aucklanders who can't afford to buy a house these days: what's your advice to renters?

Landlords can be terrible. If possible, go to the owner of your property directly. If you value their house, they will value you. I have owned houses, and I've made choices in the past to take my girls to India for a holiday. I don't regret that - I think you can choose to not regret - and I think they learned more life tools in that trip than perhaps a house would have given them. I can see myself dying in the bush. When I'm old I'll probably become that woman who builds her own whare somewhere in the middle of the bush isolated from everyone. I think I'd like that.

• For more information about the Heroic Gardens Festival visit heroicgardens.org.nz
12 Questions returns to the back page next week.