PEPPERELL — Carl Hills marks the passing of summer by the order of his harvests: strawberries and rhubarb in June, followed by blueberries, raspberries, peaches, and plums in July, and then tomatoes, cantaloupes, and pears into August.
And now, his farm’s rolling hills are yielding the crop that signals the season’s wane and approaching autumn harvests: watermelon.
Its arrival wraps up three hot months of sowing and harvesting on Kimball Fruit Farm, Hills’s 200-acre idyll near the New Hampshire border. Since March, Hills has tended to this land day in and day out, working through the farm’s busiest season as his father and grandfather did before him.
He and his ancestors, he said, have worked this picturesque valley since 1747, the great Mount Monadnock tracing its outline in the far distance.
“My mantra is that it’s not a job; it’s a way of life,” Hills said as he coaxed his dusty pickup truck toward a quiet corner of his land, past winding rows of peach trees, their branches drooping low, laden with fragrant fruit.
‘They’re like these little treasure chests, hidden under the vines.’ —CARL HILLS, Kimball Fruit Farm in Pepperell
There, six 250-foot rows of leafy green watermelon vines hugged the earth.
Watermelon is one of Kimball Fruit Farm’s smaller harvests, but one that Hills, his face sunburned under a head of silvery hair, says is a joy to grow.
“There’s nothing bad about watermelon,” the 57-year-old said as he knelt at the side of one row, checking a striped melon peeking out from below a bed of leaves.
“And the fun part is really right now, taking a look at them right before you pick,” he added, patting the melon with a smile. “They’re like these little treasure chests, hidden under the vines.”
Hills only grows watermelons that have seeds, he said, “because half the fun is spitting them out.”
“Imagine as a kid, eating a watermelon without the fun of that?” he said, throwing up his hands.
This season, he has planted two varieties here, a large Crimson Sweet, a melon with red fruit and fat green stripes on its rind, and a smaller, spherical Yellow Doll, which bears tight green stripes and a creamy, yellow fruit inside.
Two months ago at this spot, Hills planted his melon seeds three or four to a mound, each a few feet from its neighbor.
His watermelon vines began to “run” during the next three weeks, quickly filling the space between seedlings. Before long, those vines began to flower, their tiny yellow blossoms, destined to bear the summer’s iconic melon, no bigger than a quarter.
The key to a good harvest, Hills said, is spacing the seeds just right. “Too crowded, and the bees that pollinate the flowers won’t be able to hop from vine to vine, and the watermelons won’t have enough room to grow,” he said.
He expects to harvest close to 300 watermelons this summer.
And how to choose a ripe one?
“You have to flip its belly over,” Hills said, bending over and pushing past the vines to peer at the striped underside of a Crimson Sweet. “It needs to be just a touch yellow.”
This one’s belly was still slightly green-tinged. When it is ready, the firm rind will not have any give, and the seeds will have turned from yellow to black.
Then, it will have to pass Hills’s final check: a sharp flick of his middle fingernail against the rind.
“If it’s ripe, it should resonate just like a bouncing basketball,” he said, holding the Crimson Sweet to his ear.
“Hear it?” he said, tapping the melon. “Too early or too ripe, and all you hear is a thud.”
On this day, Hills heard a thud.
But his watermelons will be ready to pick Saturday.
And that is just in time, said Debbie Wilson, 55, who manages the Kimball Fruit Farm Stand, a wooden, red-roofed house in the heart of the farm premises.
For Pepperell residents, the roadside stand is a fixture of summer days and summer meals.
“I used to have a garden, but I come here instead, so I don’t have to weed,” said Jerri Pries, 64, who has come to Kimball’s for close to 20 years. “This place isn’t just part of my summer; it’s part of my day.”
As for the watermelons? “They’ll go like crazy this weekend and next for the last summer cookouts,” Wilson said, disappearing from Kimball’s roadside stand and 11 farmer’s market sites.
Into fruit salads, ice creams, and cold summer cocktails those watermelons will go, offering one last sweet taste of waning summer to Pepperell and to Hills, who coaxed them from the earth.