Why don’t they do their weeds?

Published 02/06/14

How often do you hear that, asks Karen Alexander. It might be a landholder about a neighbour, a council reserve manager of an adjoining private land owner, a community group of council,  a council of state department, or Parks Victoria of a neighbour or other government agency.

WELL, what is the answer? The Johns Hill Landcare Group, based at Emerald, wanted to know. So did the local council, Cardinia Shire, who were running their 

6 Towns Project (funded by the then DPI). The project worked on three weeds – blackberry, pittosporum and ragwort – along roadsides within the six towns: Emerald, Cockatoo, Gembrook, Upper Beaconsfield, Maryknoll and Pakenham Upper.

Johns Hill was part of the Reference Group for the project and raised questions after yet another tiring event to “raise awareness” of weeds.

“If only people knew about these weeds” we would say, “then they would act.” But would they? Was it ‘just raising awareness’ that was necessary? Was it ‘just education’? What did it mean ‘to know about’?

For volunteers from Johns Hill the thought that a million years of volunteering was needed to get land owners to ‘do their weeds’ led to a different way of thinking that also coincided with council’s needs and frustrations as well.

Council’s Weed Management Officer and the local Councillors wanted to find out what people knew of the 6 Towns Project and whether it had influenced the behaviour of residents. Had it inspired residents to do something on their properties?

So, Why don’t they do their weeds? was born from frustration by two organisations wanting to have their limited resources – time and money – targeted in ways that were backed up by evidence with a clear target audience, tested message/s, tested ways of reaching the target group and a capacity to monitor the impact of actions.

Of course there was not much money for such research as most grants for community groups were geared to outcomes on the ground.

A research methodology

By coincidence a behaviour change specialist, Canadian Doug Mackenzie-Mohr, was visiting Australia and offering ‘how to’ workshops based on research into the behaviour change of individuals associated with a ‘community good’. Such ‘goods’ include things like recycling, donating, and acting on weeds.

As landcare targets behavioural change so the Fostering Sustainable Behaviour (FSB) process was seen as a tool worth assessing for its usefulness to landcare groups. The Council thought so and the author, then-President of Johns Hill Landcare, and Marianne Sawyer, Weed Management Officer at Cardinia Shire Council, attended the Doug McKenzie-Mohr FSB workshops. The take-home messages from the workshops challenged some very common assumptions, including: 

  • ‘Intuitive’ belief that a changed attitude will lead to changed behaviour
  • Self-interest has a major influence over changing behaviour.

Both Johns Hill and Cardinia recognised the FSB process as a potential template for the research needs around weeds and residents because: 

  • It was primarily for community-based behaviour change programs;
  • It provided a clear process;
  • The costs were within the available resources;
  • It could be dovetailed with Cardinia Shire Council’s need to evaluate its 6 Towns Weed Control Project.
  • Forming a partnership and research team A research team was formed between Johns Hill and Cardinia Shire Council (eventually an MOU was signed) and it was agreed to adopt the FSB methodology. Research methods employed included a postal survey, telephone survey, focus groups, and 
    a comparison of several community-based ‘behaviour change’ programs including Fireguard and Sustainability Street. Methodology 

1. Select your target audience 

Johns Hill and Cardinia knew that some residents wanted to do their weeds but didn’t get round to acting on this desire. Neither organisation had any idea what percentage of households was in this category.

So it was decided that the target audience was residents who wanted to do their weeds but didn’t. While this was avoiding the most ‘recalcitrant’ of residents we thought that if this ‘most likely’ target audience won’t change their behaviour then the rusted-on-refuse-to-act residents weren’t going to change their behaviour either.

The target audience was identified via the postal survey and was followed up with a phone survey. A random selection was invited to a focus group. 

2. Select the behaviours that you want to encourage 

The behaviour to be encouraged was for residents to manage their weeds in a timely and effective manner.

3. List, prioritise and research the barriers and benefits for the  desired behaviour

A postal survey of the 3782 postcode (Emerald, Clematis, Avonsleigh) was conducted by Cardinia Shire Council in order to answer various questions including:

  • Knowledge of the 6 Towns Project
  • Knowledge of local environmental weeds
  • The barriers to the household, if any, of doing the weeds on that property, and the perceptions as to the benefits of doing the weeds on that property.

To identify the target audience, households were also asked how much they wanted to do their weeds but didn’t.

The postal survey had a 25% response rate. Many said they already did their weeds (this was not surprising given the suburban nature of the blocks), while about 20% said they wanted to do and didn’t.

The postal survey was followed up by a phone survey of those in the target audience who had also indicated they were happy to be rung and the barriers and benefits to doing weeds were tested.

The list below of possible barriers and benefits was used as a checklist in the phone survey (they are not in priority order): 

  • Assistance for people not physically able to do weed removal themselves
  • Assistance with cost of weed sprays and/or labour
  • Neighbours working together on weed issues, sharing knowledge, equipment or contractors
  • Increased education through leaflets, access to websites, regular newsletters, displays in library or community house
  • Expert advice and/or demonstration from:
    • Consultant visiting your street or property
    • Advice at local town stall or events 
    • Local landcare group 
    • Council staff 
    • Emerald Community House e.g. workshop Mitre 10 store in Emerald
    • Information with rates notices
  • Free tip vouchers
  • The use of green bins for weeds

4. Map the tools and strategies to encourage the benefits and overcome the barriers for the desired behaviours

The results of the mail and phone surveys were used to ‘map tools and strategies’ that could be tested in two focus groups of randomly selected people from our target audience.

Tools and strategies tested included:

  • Most likely visitor you would stop and listen re weeds: a neighbour, a representative of local landcare, of Council, of the local Mitre 10, of the state government.
  • Most likely sender of an invitation to see how weeds disappear at a landcare field day: landcare, Council, Mitre 10, state government, Bunnings. •    Neighbouring land holders doing something about weeds, e.g. neighbours, Council, Parks Victoria, local Landcare or friends-of group. •    Rate reduction from Council if weeds cleared/reduced from property.
  • Meeting an expert.
  • Grant from Council for clearing weeds.
  • Advice and help – free – from local landcare group.
  • Free identification of weeds, how to remove/kill them, and what to replace them with. 

5 Select a pilot to test strategy  

With the results of the research above Johns Hill and Cardinia are now undertaking a jointly funded pilot project.

Key findings

Neighborhood based programs with skilled facilitators are very likely to be effective in changing the behavior of private landholders.


Develop a pilot project that tests: a neighbourhood approach, uses a skilled facilitator, and sources appropriate expertise for those participating and for their site.

Continue the partnership and between Cardinia Shire Council and Johns Hill Landcare to manage the pilot project. 


The 6 Towns Weed Control Project was a very good example of community and local government working together and after four years of on-ground works, the project resulted in a dramatic reduction in roadside weed populations.

The research into community behaviour has led Council and Johns Hill to develop a community based weed pilot project.

The pilot project is testing two hypotheses: a neighbourhood approach, and use of expert facilitator who knows how to access appropriate information and expertise for the neighbourhood participants. A further criteria was that the neighbourhoods were selected adjacent to where work was occurring on public land, in this case Puffing Billy trackside which was often adjacent to council roadsides.

The partnership of Cardinia Shire Council and Johns Hill Landcare working together on weed control for residents was successful for both partners. This is due to a clear understanding of purpose, joint decision-making and sufficient commitment of time and resources from each partner. The work has now entered the next phase – the testing of the strategy in a community pilot project with joint funding. 

The funding from Johns Hill Landcare has come from the Green Tracks project being run by the landcare network. Green Tracks is a partnership with Puffing Billy and is planning and implementing weed control on the Puffing Billy trackside land.

We think we know some of the answers to ‘why don’t they do their weeds?’ and it’s fascinating testing the answers via the Community Weed Pilot Project said Karen Alexander from Johns Hill and Marianne Sawyer from Cardinia, So far” they said, “we are finding that we got the right answer with a majority of residents in the neighbourhoods where we’ve worked not only wanting to do their weeds but actually doing them to some extent. But it is a slow process.”

The Community Weed Pilot project is testing the results of the research in this article. Stay tuned! There will be more on the results of the pilot in the next edition of Indigenotes.


Cardinia Shire Council, especially Weed Management Officer, Marianne Sawyer. 

Julie Thompson, Rosalie Cooper, Libby Smith who played key roles in the research phase. 

Further info: http://johnshill.org.au 

Contacts: Karen Alexander: weedpilot@johnshill.org.au

Marianne Sawyer: m.sawyer@cardinia.vic.gov.au