PALMETTO -- About 11 years ago, a few dead plants lay scattered on empty tables inside a waterless greenhouse at Lincoln Middle School in Palmetto. An FFA program in its infancy was in great need of a proverbial mother to nurse it to its potential.
Agri-science teacher and FFA director Kimberly Lough was not present at the birth of the FFA program, but it has blossomed under her tutelage.
In 2013, the school program was named one of "Florida's Finest" middle school chapters and one of the top five programs in the nation.
Lough continues to nudge her FFA students toward new challenges.
The front of the school will transform from 9 a.m.-noon Saturday from a student drop-off area to the inaugural "Garden Gala: Nourishing Our World."
The event will showcase the school's award-winning talents and students, showing attendees how to grow fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs in an urban environment, and how to use the ingredients to make a healthy meal with cooking demonstrations.
Lough said students also will teach how to grow rare fruit and do hydroponics at home. Food vendors and locally made cakes and pies will be for sale. Entry is free with parking available at the school, 305 17th St. E., Palmetto.
Lough said the garden gala concept started several years ago with some local organizations that wanted to find property for a community garden. The collaboration led to building the school's raised garden bed system, otherwise known as an urban garden, and installing irrigation lines. It was originally meant to be a community garden where volunteers could tend garden boxes.
It hasn't reached that point yet. Lough said city officials have said the school's "urban garden" system could do a lot more good than just providing volunteers with something to do.
"They noticed that a lot of people in this area don't have access to fresh food," said Lough. "Walmart is a long, long walk from here, so we got the idea to teach people how to do this. The idea is to get all of these dry, empty spots around this neighborhood and get people to grow something in them that they can eat and also to possibly start a farmer's market where it can help out financially as well."
Lough said there is something creative about taking a few empty square feet of land and creating a garden capable of feeding a family.
"I'm no artist," she said. "I can't paint for anything, but the land is my tapestry. What I love the most is just to create an opportunity for others to be inspired and that's what our program is all about. It's why we offer so many different things because I want our students to have that opportunity to find something and to fall in love with it."
The garden gala has been planned since late last year and Lough said students and participants are excited. She said this weekend's DeSoto Seafood Festival wasn't on her radar when the gala was planned but hopes the people the festival will draw will help the gala succeed.
The feisty Kentucky native, whose family operated a small "hobby" farm, considers herself a "city girl." She said she isn't about to let anything get in the way of helping students continue to soar.
"I had enough experience around the farm environment for this not to sound like a foreign concept as a city girl coming in to teach agri-science with a history degree and background in geology environmental consulting," said Lough. "I was inspired from the first day I arrived and have remained inspired every day of the last 11 years. I have found things in myself that I didn't know was there. That's what I want for my students."
Garden Gala: Nourishing Our World kicks off at 9 a.m. Saturday at Lincoln Middle School. For more information contact Lough at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him @urbanmark2014.