Azalea farm in Cape County a family legacy

Wednesday, April 20, 2005
These lavender azaleas are among the blooming varieties at the Pinecrest Azalea Farm near Oak Ridge.

From now until the first week of March, every day will bring a new burst of color to the Pinecrest Azalea Farm in Oak Ridge.

Of the 52 acres of land Gene and Linda Penzel own, 15 acres are covered with countless blooming plants. They create layers of color as the dogwoods form a tall white canopy overhead, a rainbow of azaleas are clustered together at chest height, and 50,000 yellow daffodils and jonquils line the gravel driveways.

"The whole valley will be color. It's unbelievable. You feel like you've just stepped into heaven," Linda Penzel said.

The gravel driveway routes visitors along the edge of the azalea farm, circling them back to the exit. Close to the end of the short drive, the road splits in two around a center island. The left side is for those who want to continue on with their drive, while the right is reserved for parking.

Visitors often spend several hours walking the paths and sitting on benches woven in between the plants.

The Penzels open the land to the public free of charge during daylight hours because they appreciate people's interest to visit their farm. The couple says they are not bothered by the hundreds of cars and buses that come to the farm.

"We put in so much work and there is so much beauty. We just enjoy sharing," said Linda Penzel.

More than 2,000 visitors from all over the United States are drawn to the farm each year, largely by word of mouth. Even though the farm is a stop along the Mississippi Valley Scenic Tour, they have been told for years by tourists that they are the best kept secret in the region. Their remote location has kept them hidden even from residents in bordering towns.

Within the Penzel family, the farm is a legacy. It began back in 1963, at which time the azaleas were only planted in the center island of the driveway loop.

After years of developing his garden hobby by working alongside his parents, Gene Penzel took over the farm in 1998. Since then, more land has been cleared and flowers have multiplied.

When they are not visiting with the tourists, the Penzels play hosts to groups who have rented their property for parties. The farm is also a perfect background for engagement and wedding pictures, and Oak Ridge students use it for their prom and senior pictures.

It's a good thing the Penzels are retired -- Gene Penzel from running Penzel Construction, and Linda Penzel as executive assistant for the Jackson Chamber of Commerce -- because the work on the farm proves to be a seven-day-a-week job.

It takes two days just to mow the land that has been cleared, and they hope one day to have the entire 52 acres cleared and filled in with flowers. In the spring, just after the plants bloom, the couple trims the overgrowth to keep the walk paths clear. And in the fall, they spend their days transplanting new plants to cleared land.

"It's kind of like a jungle if you don't maintain it," Gene Penzel said.

cpierce@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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