East London’s Pothole Art

Little Holes of Happiness

By Kelly Beswick

Whether pedestrian or cyclist, East London’s many potholes can be a real pain, but one man’s mission has been to transform them into a pleasure, planting up the most stunning miniature gardens. We meet guerilla gardener Steve Wheen, whose delightful designs are putting smiles on the faces of locals

Anything that lifts the spirits and briefly makes you forget about the daily grind, has got to be most welcome. Which is why Steve Wheen’s inclusion on the San Miguel Rich List is so timely. Forget the charming Mike Ashleys and Sir Philip Greens of this world. This particular Rich List wouldn’t touch those billionaires with a veritable barge pole. No this list comprises of ‘life-rich’ individuals from across the globe who have unique, compelling and aspirational stories that go some way to making our everyday existence that little bit better. And heaven knows after the year we’ve just had, that’s surely got to be celebrated.

So give a fanfare please for Mr. Wheen, who for the past eight years has quietly gone about transforming hundreds of East London potholes into glorious oases of vivid green shrubs and brightly coloured flowers, with an occasional miniature prop (a park bench, phone box or bicycle perhaps) thrown in for good measure.

The impact of these tiny pothole gardens has been huge, far, far bigger that Wheen could ever have imagined when he started out. “It originally began as a design project for my Masters at Central St Martins” he says in his gentle Australian accent. “I was looking to turn something a little bit crappy into something that made people feel happy. As a cyclist living in Shoreditch, I was all too familiar with the area’s many potholes, and that’s when I struck on the idea of turning them into little gardens.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Wheen thinks he found the gardening idea especially appealing having grown up in Canberra. “It’s known as the Bush Capital because there’s so much land and everyone’s got these huge gardens,” he explains. “Whether you like it or not, as a kid you’re out there raking the leaves, mowing the lawn and growing tomatoes. It was something I’d just taken for granted back home but here, living in a gardenless flat, I guess I missed it.”

Thus Wheen’s unique brand of guerilla gardening was born. “It’s funny how my little gardens are so small compared to other types of guerilla gardening where people will go and fix up a whole roundabout,” he muses. “They’ll do big beds of plants whereas everything I do is tiny.” But size clearly isn’t everything because within a few short months of starting his project, and an accompanying blog, Wheen’s work was drawing in thousands of followers.

A short film and a book (The Little Book of Little Gardens, £9.99, Dokument Press) followed, garnering Wheen even more accolades. “It’s amazing how my little project just took off and continues to attract attention all these years later,” he says sounding genuinely surprised. “What’s really great is that people from all around the world have picked up on pothole gardening. From Montreal to Hong Kong and Germany, people send me photos of their work that I then post on my blog.”

Over the years the project has evolved and these days Wheen likes to take people out gardening. “It’s become a much more social thing,” he says.

Of course guerilla gardening, as lovely as it is, does not pay the bills, which is why Wheen combines it with running an online video content company, called The Distillery. As well as producing videos for commercial clients, he increasingly works with charities. “Helping charities through my short films is where my passion lies. This year I’m planning a big crowd funding project for Water Aid, encouraging people to water my pothole gardens,” he reveals.

What a thoroughly decent chap that Mr. Wheen is and thanks to San Miguel’s alternative Rich List his small acts of kindness have now been properly recognized.

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