Vellayani agriculture college uses 'Horticulture Therapy' to help those with disabilities

Anand P

The College of Agriculture, under the Kerala Agricultural University in Thiruvananthapuram, is the first academic institution that has evinced interest in developing the theory, and practice of horticultural therapy in India The 'Horticultural Therapy Garden' installed at the College of Agriculture, Vellayani, is one of a kind facility in India that enables students to learn the knowledge and skills required to work in social, therapeutic and vocational horticultural settings. Further, the college has now opened up its door for trained practitioners in the field of Horticulture Therapy.

World Autism Day

Horticulture Therapy Garden in College of Agriculture, Thiruvananthapuram | Photo: Arranged

Gardening is a day-to-day activity in many households or a hobby for people to engage with nature. It is also a business opportunity nowadays with more household enterprises flourishing across the country. The sight of daffodils and sunflowers basking in the evening glow, and the leaves swaying in a gentle breeze, unquestionably calms your nerves and keeps you alive.

Meanwhile, the expansion of horticulture as a discipline in the last two centuries has further advanced the scope of the subject. From cultivating herbal medicines to tackling debilitating nutrient-related disorders, the scope of Horticulture as a discipline has changed drastically. Today, it is used as a subject to treat children with disabilities- commonly called Horticulture Therapy.

Horticultural Therapy

Horticultural Therapy is an interdisciplinary approach to human development that integrates social and behavioural science with horticulture and the environment. According to American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA), HT is an individual's engagement through gardening and plant-based activities with the help of a therapist to achieve specific treatment goals. It is worth remembering that the therapy helps those with disabilities to improve their memory, cognitive abilities, task initiation, language skills, and socialization.

The College of Agriculture, under the Kerala Agricultural University in Thiruvananthapuram, is the first academic institution that has evinced interest in developing the theory, research, and practice of horticultural therapy in India. The 'Horticultural Therapy Garden' installed in the College of Agriculture, Vellayani, is one of a kind facility in India that enables students to learn the knowledge and skills required to work in social, therapeutic and vocational horticultural settings.

Programme conducted for those with disabilities | Photo: Special arrangement

Beela GK, professor at the Department of Community Science, has been at the forefront in introducing HT to Kerala and helping those with disabilities. In the last decade, the department of Community Science of the College of Agriculture initiated skill development programmes for those with disabilities and further extended the scope of the subject beyond its theory. In a brief Interview with, professor Beela shares her insight on HT and its potential in tackling issues like Autism.

Can you share the benefits of Horticulture Therapy in improving the lives of those affected by disabilities?

Professor Beela GK

Horticultural therapy engages in one-on-one interaction and enhances sensory stimulation in those with disabilities. This method has proven to be an ideal one that makes notable changes in the life of people. It helps improve fine motor, gross motor skills and eye-hand coordination of people with disabilities. Additionally, HT is proven to have effects on controlling anger, anxiety, and frustration among people. Further, it helps in tackling problems associated with social and communication.

Additionally, group gardening helps in social relationship gatherings to work together. After engaging with various techniques, the sensory stimuli (colour, smell, touch, sound) can be heightened from their everyday standard. Through multiple steps of engaging with plants, the ability on following up can be made easier. The extracurricular activities of children also become more potent while working with plants. Through the training, there is a scope for building confidence and promise for these people.

Photo: Special arrangement

A project implemented by the College of Agriculture, Vellayani, with the financial assistance of the State Horticulture Mission, had earlier studied the effects of HT in those children with disabilities. "The students with disabilities were given three-month-long training, with notable changes in their behaviour. The programme was a great success. Based on these successes, we decided that we should roll out programmes for students interested in becoming HT trainers. This was one of the first and the only training programme in India," said Dr A Anil Kumar, Dean of faculty, College of Agriculture, Vellayani.

The scope of HT in Kerala. Is the awareness about the treatment known to the public?

There is a huge potential and scope for HT in Kerala. However, the awareness of horticultural therapy is comparatively less among people and academicians. Meanwhile, it is worth mentioning that there have been clear improvements in the skills of disabled children, which create social wellbeing. Further, Therapeutic gardens have been set up by many organizations in many places around the state which are accessible to children.

Back in 2016, the Centre for Disability Studies (CeDS), Poojappura, adopted HT in 10 schools in Thiruvananthapuram to help those children in need. Despite its success among children, the initiative met several hurdles with a lack of resources and man-force needed to manage gardens in schools. "HT received great reception among children in school. However, difficulties in managing the garden left schools unable to continue with the project. Further, the pandemic brought the initiative to a halt," said Dr Naveen S, director in charge of CeDS.

The College of Agriculture in Vellayani conducts programmes on horticulture therapy. How does the programme work?

College of Agriculture in Vellayani conducts programmes on horticultural therapy for many beneficiaries like differently-abled, autism, speech impaired etc. The results are highly impressive after they are happily involved in garden activities and socially engaged with the students. This motivates us to introduce a post-graduate diploma for developing trained horticulture therapists. We are very happy to inform that first batch of PG Diploma Course in HT commenced training from March onwards. Currently, there are six students enrolled in the course.

The children engage with nature through the Community Horticulture Therapy garden, a plant-dominated environment designed to facilitate interaction with the healing elements of nature. The basic features of the garden are that it includes wide and gently graded accessible entrances and paths, raised planting beds, rotating pots, hanging pots with pulley, hugging the tree, vertical gardening, a pond and a sensory-oriented plant selection focused on colour, texture, and fragrance.

Faculty with the first batch students doing post graduate Diploma in Horticultural Therapy | Photo: Arranged

"I opted for the course because the field has so much potential. Our college is the only one in India to have an HT programme. There is a huge opportunity that lies ahead in the field. So I opted for the course and was enrolled with five others in the first batch of the PG diploma course," said Satishkumar S, a Tamil Nadu native and former graduate student from Tamil Nadu agriculture university.

Anulakshmi TK said that the uniqueness and practical approach of HT motivated her to opt the course.

Importance of therapy in today's context. Especially during the covid period?

Children with a disability need continuous therapy regularly. Similarly, any break in the process cause developmental delay and relapse in their development. During the pandemic, the children had little social interaction other than being with the family. Therefore, people need to get involved in activities that could support a person in better social interaction. Even the day-to-day life of commoners ended up being more stressful and isolated during the Covid-19 period.

Photo:Special arrangement

The new methods and technologies in Horticulture Therapy?

Many new technologies are invented and being experimented with. Further, different adaptive structures are developed for easy accessibility. Gardens are modified favourably for the kind of disability. New technologies like Neurofeedback machines for the data collection of clients are used in the field to extend the scope of the subject.

Horticulture Therapy course offered in College of Agriculture, Vellayani

(PG Diploma in Horticultural Therapy: Duration: 1 Year)

Course Objective:
a. To understand the history and practices of Horticultural therapy.
b. To design and implement Horticultural Therapy to the targeted population activities.
c. To distinguish the difference between therapeutic, vocational, and social programs.
d. To learn to set up a Horticultural Therapy garden

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