Beauty Nearby

These botanical gardens in North Central Florida offer respite and inspiration for those with or without green thumbs.

Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens

Last month, we suggested gardens to visit that are about a day’s drive from the Ocala area. This month, we focus on gardens close by that offer a world of peace, quiet and inspiration, and have the advantage of being (mostly) more in sync with our growing zone. 

I’m almost reluctant to publicize this first garden because it is such a hidden gem, but if visitors prompt more purchases and donations to the garden and help it thrive and grow, that’s a good thing. The Nature Coast Botanical Gardens and Nursery is in Spring Hill, about a two-hour drive via State Road 200 through Hernando and Inverness, through the Withlacoochee State Forest on U.S. 41 before turning west toward U.S. 19.

Nature Coast Botanical Gardens and Nursery, photo courtesy of Nature Coast Botanical Gardens and Nursery website

There are 22 themed garden “rooms” on a mere 4.5 acres, tucked away in a residential neighborhood. The site is peaceful and soothing. Birds flit among the foliage and butterflies congregate, of course, near the Butterfly Garden. Each garden room has its own group of volunteers who maintain it, and the variety is quite fun. The Water and Railroad Garden features a working model train that treks around a pond with a waterfall, nestled among bromeliads, ferns, azaleas and bamboo. The themed gardens include Wildflowers and Native Plants, the Rose and Poinsettia Garden, the Asian Room and the Bromeliad Garden. Artwork pieces and sculptures are set among the various plants. Artist Tom Howard created and installed more than a dozen bird sculptures set among the tree branches overhead. A scavenger hunt for kids lets them search for the artwork hidden in various garden rooms.

Paved pathways meander throughout the garden. Leashed, well-behaved pets are welcome. The day I visited, a woman pushed a cat in a stroller through the paths and a group of dog lovers had just finished their monthly meeting and lunch at the covered picnic area.

The gardens are 20 years old this year and are completely maintained by volunteer staff and private donations. The gardens are free to tour every day of the year. The nursery is open on Mondays and Saturdays from 9am to noon (cash or check only). Many of the plants for sale were propagated from the garden stock, so you know they’ll grow well in the area. Visit naturecoastgardens.com for more information.

Kanapaha Botanical Gardens

Just a 30-minute drive north from Ocala, off Archer Road in Gainesville, is the enchanting Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, which has 24 garden collections spread over 68 acres. A 1 ½-mile paved walkway meanders through the gardens, which include a labyrinth, an azalea and camellia collection, a butterfly garden and a sinkhole with a scenic overlook. The garden sells basic drinks and snacks, and you’re welcome to bring outside food and drink to eat at the picnic areas. Admission is $10 for adults. The gardens are open 9am to 5pm weekdays (except for Thursday) and until dusk on weekends.

The gardens host numerous weddings and special events, and the big Kahuna at Kanapaha is the Spring Garden Festival, usually held in March. To me, the tone of the website is oddly unfriendly, full of rules and stern warnings, but if you’re up for a nice morning or afternoon jaunt with a stop for a meal in Gainesville, it will make for a pleasant day. Visit kanapaha.org for more details.

Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens is a 40-minute drive west of Ocala, on U.S. 27 to just the other side of Williston. It’s an enchanting place, created from an abandoned limestone quarry and transformed into a lush garden with multiple levels, a dramatic (for Florida) waterfall feature and steppingstones through the main quarry pond.

The unique ecosystem created by the quarry allows for subtropical plants to survive in a humid, warmer environment. Ferns, bromeliads and orchids surround koi ponds and other water features. Wildlife abounds in the garden—hawks hover overhead, owls glide through the tree branches and songbirds zip about. The ponds support fish and turtles, and tame-ish swans and geese. A house on the property is being refurbished as an educational center.

Light snacks and drinks are available at the welcome center, and you can bring your own food and drink for the covered picnic area. Special events are held throughout the year.

Please note, this attraction is not totally accessible by wheelchair or scooter; most of the paths are rocky and bumpy, and many visitors use stairs and/or ramps to get up and down the quarry’s sides.

Daily admission is $12 for adults, $7 for ages 6-13, with children under 5 admitted for free. See cedarlakeswoodsandgarden.com for more information. OS

A native Floridian and lifelong gardener, Belea spends her time off fostering cats and collecting caladiums. You can send gardening questions or column suggestions to her at belea@magnoliamediaco.com

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