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Ethics case study: The polyveg garden project

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Mixed vegetables

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This case study is taken from the 'Ethics in community-based participatory research: Case studies, case examples and commentaries' publication produced by Durham University. This document supports the 'Community-based participatory research: A guide to ethical principles and practice'. Both of these documents can be found in full here.

Project description

This case study describes a ‘community science’ project involving a university-based researcher (plant ecologist), an interest group (Permaculture Association, PA) and volunteer researchers (gardeners, members of the PA).  The majority of the issues that were anticipated and emerged were generally seen by participants as being practical and scientific (how best to communicate or how to achieve reliable data) rather than ethical (relating to conflicts of interest, rights and responsibilities of different parties). Therefore, in addition to discussing several ethical tensions identified by the plant ecologist, this case study also draws out some of the potential or latent ethical issues.  

The polyveg garden project was a ‘one year trial’ participatory research project that involved 50 gardeners across the UK growing annual mixed vegetables using a polyculture approach. Polyculture involves growing a mix of vegetables, herbs, flowers or fruit.  Common examples include the English Cottage Garden, Caribbean kitchen gardens and allotments of Bangladeshi communities in London. It differs from conventional vegetable gardening, where each crop is grown in rows or patches, in that a mixed crop is grown together in the same space. In conventional gardening the same species (e.g. peas or brassicas) may be grouped together, which means they compete for the same nutrients and become attractive to pests.

The key question for this project was: Can growing food plants in communities rather than monocultures also be more productive (and better for the environment)? The aim of the study was to compare low and high density mixes to answer two questions: 1) Are more diverse (12 species) vegetable mixes more productive than less diverse (three species) mixes?; and  2) How easy do gardeners find these systems to use?

The idea for the project emerged from informal discussions between members of the Permaculture Association (PA), one of whom was a plant ecologist based in the National School of Forestry, University of Cumbria. As the plant ecologist explained: ’The Permaculture Association was keen to develop the research side and move towards “academic” research to complement and enhance their existing body of practitioner research’. The plant ecologist’s academic work had involved forest gardening, but as a keen vegetable grower and plant ecologist the opportunity to work with PA on a vegetable growing project was interesting. A working group, comprising the plant ecologist and three other members of PA discussed how to run a member trial, seeking insights from Garden Organic, a national charity for organic growing.

The project started in January 2011. The Permaculture Association’s contact database was used to recruit participants. Once 50 were recruited the trial began in earnest during the growing season of March to October 2011. The project was managed by the Polyculture research team comprising the plant ecologist from the University of Cumbria and four people from the Permaculture Association Mixed Vegetable team. Each team member was responsible for managing different aspects of the trial and their expertise/experience determined who would manage what. The plant ecologist, in liaison with the Mixed Vegetable Team, managed the scientific aspects, such as seed densities and what to plant. Her remit was to ensure the scientific aspect was ‘clear and rigorous’. The PA members of the team were responsible for data and administrative management and it was an intern who coordinated the trials, sent out the seeds, was the first point of contact and collected all the data. Often the emails were written by the plant ecologist and then the intern made them user-friendly. As the plant ecologist explained: 'There was not a hard and fast structure. At any point anyone could feed in about the choice of species, range of plant families and niches'. Funding was provided either in-kind or through donations - for example, four seed companies provided free seed for the trial.

Each participant was sent seeds and asked to create two plots – one for the low diversity plants (peas, radish and beet) and one for high diversity plants (peas, radish, beet, onions, lettuce, beetroot, sweet corn, coriander, runner beans, kale, marigolds and rocket). They were asked to record when they visited the plots, how long they spent there and to weigh each species each time it was harvested.

In the end 24 of the participants completed the trial and returned useable data. The plant ecologist analysed the data and wrote up the results, which were presented to the PA and made available in an accessible report.

Ethical issues anticipated in the project

Consent and anonymity of volunteer researchers

As the project was seen as scientific research based on the study of plants (rather than the study of humans or animals) it was not submitted for institutional ethical review at the University. However, the plant ecologist did pay attention to the rights and interests of the volunteer researchers, ensuring that they were properly briefed and their privacy was assured. As the ecologist explained:

A common sense approach to ethics was taken drawing on years of research project experience and taking into account the most likely/common ethical issues such as anonymity, confidentiality, informed consent and handling of personal data.

A letter was sent initially to each participant providing information about the project and detailing what participation meant: to grow the vegetables according to the specifications; record information as required; and complete questionnaires. Informed consent was gained from participants once they had read, understood and agreed to the project terms. Anonymity and privacy were considered important because in a previous research project involving forest gardens, the plant ecologist had learnt that: ‘some people wanted to be more private. They wanted to know who would have the information, where would it be publicly available and they wanted assurances that it would not be personally identifiable’.

For the polyveg trial these potential concerns were anticipated and privacy of participants was assured in that the team promised that no personal information would be shared outside of the PA and University.

Furthermore, e-mail addresses would only be used to contact participants in relation to the trial. The team also checked that participants would be happy to share data findings within the network and more widely.

Personal anonymity was assured and the data were aggregated to such an extent that participants would not be personally identifiable. When the plant ecologist produced a map (publicly available on a website) showing where the plots were, this was circulated to participants. There were no objections because the dots on the map covered such a large area, it was impossible to identify specific gardens or even towns.

Permission was sought to use photographs that were shared on Flickr.

Ownership of data and findings

It was made clear from the outset that the data would be used by both PA and the University of Cumbria.

The research team knew and trusted each other and did not feel it was necessary to produce a written agreement regarding intellectual property, whose names would appear on publications or how to credit the volunteer researchers.

Credibility of findings

The research team anticipated a high drop-out rate of volunteer researchers and wanted to ensure findings were reliable and credible. Hence they recruited 50 people, with the aim of gaining data from 20. The fact that they used data from 24 plots was regarded as satisfactory as far as this study was concerned.


Ethical issues emerging and developing

What is research? Negotiations between research partners about what is practical and scientific

Even though the two research partners (PA and the University of Cumbria’s plant ecologist) shared an interest in gardening and in particular vegetable growing it emerged early on that what each thought counted as research was very different. Discussions at the early stage revealed very different ideas about how to approach the research project. These differences were interesting (i.e. hearing other perspectives) and challenging (i.e. how to negotiate and move forward). One member of the PA thought that everyone in the trial could grow what they wanted, but the plant ecologist thought that this was not scientific as it would not produce data that could be subject to rigorous analysis. The plant ecologist was concerned with replicability and control, and initially wanted a much larger scale trial. In the end, a balance was reached whereby the trial was practical and scientific. They asked the questions – what can we ask people to do that is not too demanding, but will yield results that are both relevant to the participants and scientifically meaningful? And ‘how much science can we ask people to do?’

Communications between the research team and volunteers

Another issue, related to language, came about when writing the project instructions. The 50 participants came from a variety of backgrounds, with wide ranging levels of education, knowledge and experience of gardening. However, they were not particularly knowledgeable about the polyveg approach and the science underpinning it. The challenge was to write clear and intelligible instructions that were not too prescriptive so as to appear patronising. Despite efforts to write the instructions clearly the project team were surprised at the various interpretations. For example, some people wanted detailed information on where to place each seed, whereas others were happy to do what they usually did. Also, even though the instructions said how to record the information people interpreted this differently. In some situations the geographical location influenced decisions to deviate from the instructions because planting seeds in April (as per the instructions) may not be appropriate due to variations in weather between the North and South of the UK. The issues raised about how to communicate and negotiate the instructions were both practical (what would work best) and ethical (not being patronising and respecting local knowledge).

Learning from the experience of working with these ethical issues and reflections on potential ethical issues

1. The advantages and disadvantages of institutional ethical review – The plant ecologist discussed the project with the Head of the Ethics Committee at the University and was advised that it was not necessary to go through a full approval process. This was because the research was not seen as involving experiments on humans or animals and did not involve using personal data from the volunteers. However, if the research had gone through some kind of institutional review process it might have raised the fact that the research was a partnership between University and the PA and its members. So some kind of agreement might have been made between the parties regarding intellectual property, including the use of findings and data. The advantages of ethical review are that it can trigger deeper thinking in advance about ethical, practical and scientific matters. The disadvantages are that the review procedures are not geared up for CBPR, can force a fixed research design, may hamper an emergent research process and turn a complex relationship of trust between people into a simple written contract between organisations.

2. Credibility and use of volunteer researchers – an issue that might have come up, but did not, was what to do if some of the data from the volunteer researchers seemed unreliable and there was a dispute between the plant ecologist and a volunteer. Family members of the ecologist were part of the trial, as were members of the PA research team.

3. The status of the volunteer researchers – there was an issue regarding the extent to which the volunteers were ‘co-researchers’ or simply ‘providers of data’. Their names and locations were kept anonymous. This meant they could not gain credit for their part in the research. In future projects it will be important to have discussions with volunteer researchers about the advantages and disadvantages of anonymity and whether some might wish to be named. 

4. Agreements regarding authorship and ownership of data - Although no conflicts occurred in this case, some discussion and a working agreement at the start regarding who would be able to use the data might be useful.  

5. Seeing ethical issues- In planning and carrying out the project, the team did not see it as involving ethical issues (apart from consent and anonymity of the volunteer researchers). There can be some value in viewing a research project through an ‘ethical lens’, but this is not easy if ‘ethics’ is not part of the normal discourse. Having a set of principles and guidelines for scientists to use when doing ‘member trials’ or other forms of CBPR in science will help this process.

Questions for discussion

1.One of the main ethical issues anticipated was the need for volunteer researchers to remain anonymous. Might there be other ways of ensuring privacy of those who desire it, without requiring ‘blanket anonymity’ for everyone?

2. This research project was not subject to formal ethical review in the University. Do you think it should have been reviewed? What are the challenges of subjecting CBPR projects to institutional ethical review?

3. This research project did not receive external funding, but did receive some donations in kind, such as seed from seed companies. In this case accepting donated seeds is a very small contribution and there is no indication that seed companies would have any influence on the research. However, in some cases donations may be larger, or research may be fully funded by a private company. What criteria should a CBPR partnership use in deciding whether to accept donations towards its work?


Based on materials contributed by Naomi van der Velden and the Permaculture Association, compiled by Andrea Armstrong and Sarah Banks. For further details of the project see: van der Velden, N. (2012) Mixed vegetable polycultures trials: the results, The Permaculture Association/University of Cumbria,

Contact Naomi van der Velden, University of Cumbria

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