What do you do with a limestone quarry that has been abandoned for a hundred years? Turn it into a lush botanical garden, of course. The Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens property was originally mined for limestone rock to lay the foundation of Florida’s Highway 27, then deserted, leaving behind the beginnings of a swamp.
Who Started Cedar Lakes—and Why?
Army veteran and retired endodontist Raymond T. Webber bought the quarry in Williston, Florida, over thirty years ago with visions of his very own fishing hole dancing in his head. He was teaching at the University of Florida, writing chapters of dental textbooks, and lecturing nationally and internationally. In his spare time, he enjoyed traveling and fishing.
Work on the quarry soon got out of hand. Rocks were rolled into place using wheelbarrows to create walls and walkways. Handrails were added on the upper levels for safety. With a small workforce, he made islands, separate pools, waterfalls, pavilions, and bridges. Dr. Webber soon had a new hobby—gardening—to keep him occupied as he added much-needed greenery to this oasis. It grew into the 20 acres of gardens and water features you enjoy today—plus 64 woodland acres surrounding it. He sounds like a “go big or go home” kind of guy.
The idea of a public garden developed after HGTV’s Extreme Backyards filmed an episode at Dr. Webber’s home in 2006. The 2008 article in Ocala Homes magazine alerted Floridians to this hidden jewel. These two events led to people showing up at the gate to see it for themselves. Webber formed a non-profit company in 2013, and the 84-acre Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens opened to the public in January 2014. That first year, 796 people visited the garden. In 2020, some 27,500 visitors were admitted—from as far away as Israel, France, Australia, and England.
What Can You Expect to See?
Dr. Webber’s zeal for gardening equaled his enthusiasm for fishing. Now he is credited with creating one of the most unusual botanical gardens you can find. Webber donated the 20-acre botanical garden to the non-profit foundation he created and the 64-acre woodlands that surround it to Conservation Florida to keep it protected in the future. You may also wander through these woods during your visit to the garden.
Today, a far cry from his private fishing hole vision, the garden promotes peace, humane education, animal rescue, and environmental preservation. Dr. Webber still lives on the property and is happy to see so many people enjoying his concept.
The Garden is designated by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Habitat. The plaque on the grounds states that “This property is recognized for its commitment to sustainably provide essential elements of wildlife, habitat: food, water, cover and places to raise young.”
Most days of the year White Ibis birds greet visitors. The gardens’ entry lake is the largest body of water in Williston that is surrounded by trees. Williston has lots of pastureland for cattle and horses, which means lots of flies—the favorite snack of Cattle Egret birds. These Egrets leave to winter in a warmer climate but the White Ibis assumes their greeting duties.
The terraced walls of the quarry are filled with hundreds (that number may be closer to a thousand) of varieties of flowers and plants. Because of the topography, semitropical plants thrive year-round. When there is a danger of an overnight freeze, the waterfalls are left running, keeping the air warmer and ensuring plant survival.
Like children, the plants are all unique and equally loved–well, almost. The staff does have a soft spot in their hearts for the Red Tower Ginger, Costus comosus var. bakeri. This tall ginger has spiraling foliage, topped by vibrant red bracts and striking yellow flowers. The plant is common in Costa Rica but its conservation status is critically endangered. Cedar Lakes is propagating the beautiful plant and they do sell them.
I know you’re thinking that this sounds like a big place for one man to operate. And you’re right. Fortunately, he has Lori Wallace to help with the management duties. At the age of 18, Lori moved from Connecticut to St. Augustine with her then-boyfriend’s family. Now a retired bartender, she has been married to that boy for 40 years. She met Dr. Webber in 1985 when he frequented the restaurant in Ocala where she worked.
Fast-forward 20 years, Lori and her husband find themselves in Williston, and so does Dr. Webber. She asked him for a job, and 15 years later she is still tending thirsty plants instead of thirsty people. Lori has grown with the garden. When asked about her favorite spot in all the garden, without hesitation, she will tell you, “The Japanese Garden!”
The staff is friendly and happy to provide you with tips. Ask which way to go and they’ll gladly advise. There may be tips about which trails are underwater, too, if there has been rain in the area recently.
A Link to Royalty
As you walk the trails, expect to encounter butterflies, frogs, turtles, squirrels, owls, birds, koi, and other wildlife. A regal swan named Guinevere reigns over the island. She is of the English royal bloodline—yes, really. Lady Guinevere descended from the Queens’ Royal English flock.
Did you know that in England, since the 12th century, only the ruling monarch can own swans? It’s true! Any mute swans in the country are the monarch’s property. In 1957, residents of Lakeland, Florida, requested that Queen Elizabeth II donate a pair of mute swans. Today, more than 80 descendants of that pair live in Lakeland. The Parks and Recreation Department maintains a healthy population through yearly sales to thin the flock. Winning the Lakeland 2013 lottery to purchase a pair of swans, Cedar Lakes became the new home of Guinevere and Lancelot. Sadly, Lancelot now resides in the garden’s Pet Cemetery, and lonely Guinevere rules the lower-level ponds accompanied by her male guards—two Pekin ducks.
Garden employee Teresa Mankin wrote to Queen Elizabeth in 2020, sharing pictures of Guinevere and Cedar Lakes. She received a kind reply from Buckingham Palace, from the Queen’s correspondence manager.
If you visit the gardens in late October, you can participate in the Ghouls Halloween. Scary scenes and candy stations are set up to delight visitors. Unfortunately, the event will not be held in 2021, but you have plenty of time to work on your costume for next year.
The Quarry Light Show illuminates the Gardens for the Christmas season. Guests walk along the paths on the top level, viewing the lights below. Garden manager Lori Wallace excitedly says, “Lights are everywhere! It is so spectacular—especially with the reflections on the water.” Food trucks line up and hot cocoa and cider stands are located throughout the gardens. Come for the afternoon and stay for the nighttime event for the same ticket. Entrance is available at a reduced price if you come just for the lights.
In the Works
The Glen Brown Greenhouse and Cacti Collection is nearly half complete. Glen Brown of Hawthorne, Florida, collected and propagated cacti, creating the most extensive collection in the southeastern United States. His daughters have donated the collection to Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens.
The Orchard Garden continues to grow, literally. In 2019, they expanded to add pear, plum, mulberry, tangerine, persimmon, loquat, and banana trees. Dr. Webber planted the original orchard over 20 years ago with an assortment of fruit trees. Passing through the orchard, you will reach the roses and azaleas. Remember, I told you not to skip any paths.
Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens are fabulous, but they are far from finished. Short-range plans include an improved entry road, more annual events, more plantings, and improved walkways. The long-range plans for Cedar Lakes include more wheel-chair accessible walkways; a welcome center for weddings, educational seminars, and special events; an aviary; a bat house; and the purchase of additional adjacent woodlands.
WHEN YOU GO:
Lori’s Insider Tips: Don’t miss the swinging bridge or the hidden waterfall behind the pavilion. And I agree. I visited on an unbearably hot August day. Walking behind that waterfall was a cooling highlight of my visit. Make sure you have time to explore the whole garden. Walk every path, or you will miss special treats—like the orchard or the pet cemetery. Over the years, animals near and dear to the park have crossed the Rainbow Bridge. They rest in a quiet spot in the woods: Daisy (a blind deer), four dogs, cats, a rabbit, a goose, and Sir Lancelot (Guinevere’s mate.)
Pro Tips: Wear non-slip shoes since many of the walkways can be wet. And, bring a picnic lunch. Tables and benches are tucked into quiet corners throughout the gardens, allowing you to drink in the views while you relax.
Planning Your Visit
Cedar Lakes Woods and Gardens is in Williston, Florida. It is 24 miles from Gainesville, 28 miles from Ocala, and only 20 minutes off I-75. A beautiful part of Natural North Florida, this place is worth the drive.
The garden is open daily except Wednesdays, but groups of 10 or more need an appointment. Admission is charged. Children must be supervised at all times, and pets must be on a leash.
Nearby you will find:
– Blue Grotto Springs (diving and scuba lessons—such fun to watch)
– Levy County Quilt Museum (Chiefland, 22 miles)
– Devil’s Den Spring (cabin & trailer rentals, tent & RV camping)
– Two Hawk Hammock (cottage)
– Williston Crossing (RV park)
– Herlong Mansion B & B (only 12 miles to Micanopy)
– Sweetwater Branch Inn B & B (Gainesville, 24 miles)
– The Ivy House Restaurant (you have GOT to order the fried chicken!)
– Havana Cuban Café (Chiefland, 25 miles)
– Blue Highway a Pizzeria (Micanopy, 12 miles)
– Pearl Country Store & Barbecue (Micanopy, 12 miles)
Jo Clark is a retired teacher. She is road tripping, photographing, and writing about beautiful places, great food, wineries and their delicious wines; her articles and photographs may be seen at Have Glass, Will Travel and on Instagram she’s known as Jo Goes Everywhere (she sure tries!)