BAYVIEW — Jason Hess was already into trees, especially exotic ones, and had been a regular customer of Ed and Kathy Pechacek at River’s End Nursery north of Bayview for years.
Just about anything the Pechaceks had, Hess would try to grow it on the 10-acre spread he shared with his wife, Lara, and children near Mercedes.
“We’ve had some good success with quite a few varieties,” Hess said. “Dragon fruit did really well at my old place.”
His experiments with seedlings, cuttings and grafting might not have gone quite as well, though the overall experience prepared him to seize the opportunity of a lifetime when it came along. Hess, who works full time as a nursing home administrator in Harlingen, last year took his staff on a tour of River’s End. During the tour, the Pechaceks mentioned they were thinking about selling the nursery they’d built up over more than three decades.
The deal closed in November, making Hess the new owner of River’s End, which he’s renamed “Paradise Gardens.” He characterized it as a case of being in the right place at the right time.
“It’s kind of serendipity I guess,” Hess said during a recent tour of the property, where he and Lara were busy making preparations for RGV Mango Fest on July 20.
“She’s organizing this Mango Fest and doing a really nice job,” he said.
The couple inherited the event from the Pechaceks, who hosted the first Mango Fest in 2007. It’s the nursery’s signature event and the nursery’s biggest day of the year in terms of revenue, Hess said. In addition to mango tastings, Filipino and Polynesian music and dancing, prizes, games, vendors and tours, the first ever Mango Queen will be crowned during Saturday’s opening ceremony. The winner will receive a $500 scholarship courtesy of Gillman Honda of San Benito.
In addition to helping out a lucky high school junior, the Mango Queen competition helps promote the nursery and connect it with other businesses, Hess said. Making new connections and raising Paradise Gardens’ profile as a destination for visitors to the Valley, including Winter Texans, are key to his vision for the verdant 10 acres.
“What we’re trying to do is focus on events and activities like tours,” Hess said. “In the wintertime we have some interesting fruit still and it’s decent weather. We’re going to branch out to do school groups soon, and field trips and those kinds of things.”
No doubt, there’s plenty to see at the nursery, which is unique in the Rio Grande Valley. Hess points out various fruit trees during the orchard tour, some exotic for the Valley, others relatively common.
“We’re got star fruit here,” he said. “These are avocados. We have about 40 varieties of avocado planted in the orchard. We’ve got about 10 different papaya varieties. I’m not a big papaya fan. The animals like them.”
Here are banana trees, laden with ripening bananas. There the black sapote, a species of persimmon native, and there the sapodilla.
“Black sapote is a really cool one too,” Hess said. “It’s called the chocolate pudding fruit. It tastes like you’re eating Snack Pack. The sapodilla tree, these are like a pear dipped in brown sugar. They’re really, really, really yummy.”
A 12-foot mango tree is heavy with fruit, each encased in a sheer cloth bag as protection against birds — but not because birds love mangos.
“They peck them, and then the bugs love them, and then the birds eat the bugs,” Hess said. “It’s a good system.”
The nursery has 48 or so varieties of mango trees of various sizes for sale. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the family, include six kids between the ages of 3 and 10, goes through a lot of mango.
“Oh, we love mango,” Hess said. “There’s nothing better than mango.”
The nursery stopped selling citrus trees due to tighter regulations in response to a disease known as citrus greening, though orange, grapefruit, lime and lemon trees can still be found in the orchard. Hess directs customers who want citrus trees to U.S. Citrus in Hargill.
“We could buy wholesale from U.S. Citrus, but I’d just as soon send customers to them,” he said.
Besides, citrus isn’t Paradise Gardens’ niche. Weird fruit is.
“Everyone knows citrus,” Hess said. “Not everybody knows that there’s a Cotton Candy variety of mango, or that there’s a Marcus Pumpkin variety of avocado, and the avocado is like three pounds. It’s the size of a little pumpkin. Or Lancetilla, another mango that’s a five-pound mango. People don’t know about those kinds of things.”
If You Go
11th Annual RGV Mango Fest
July 20, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
27510 Ted Hunt Rd., Bayview
Tickets at the gate
$10 for adults, $5 for kids 3-11