The peony has been revered throughout history and many consider it one of the worlds’ most beautiful blooms. Mac Barry and Nicky Thomas may well be the flower’s greatest fans, each spring eagerly awaiting the first buds on their farm in central Victoria.
But there was a time when neither knew a peony from a pansy. In 2000, when Mac was still single and bought land at Spring Hill, he wanted to plant an intensive crop that would be profitable enough to fund his hobby of racehorse breeding. Wisely, he sought advice from his grandmother who lived in the region. “I asked what grew well around here and she said ‘Bulbs’, because of the frost. I thought, one daffodil stem doesn’t sell for much, so she said ‘Look at peonies’… and I’d never heard of them!”
Above: Mac Barry, Nicky Thomas, and their twins William and Lucinda
Today Mac and Nicky, who married in 2006, live and breathe peonies during their short flowering burst in November. With their six-year-old twins, William and Lucinda, they live on a 28-hectare farm in the rich and rolling volcanic country between Daylesford and Kyneton. The highest paddock, two hectares ringed by giant old eucalypts, is planted with peonies — 10,000 of them to be precise. Cattle graze on the rest of the property, along with Mac’s other love, half a dozen thoroughbreds bred for the track.
For much of the year peonies are undemanding, allowing Nicky and Mac to concentrate on their professions. Nicky is an architect — “For about half the year I do mostly domestic renovating” — in between juggling the twins’ school and other activities. Mac is a global equities trader for an overseas company, dividing the week between his home office and flying to Sydney for the remainder. But come the 10th or 12th of November, the pace quickens when the first peony buds appear. And then it’s all hands on deck.
For the next two weeks they, and a roster of casual workers, frantically pick, sort and package the buds, selling them to florists, interstate markets and at farmers’ markets around Melbourne. Then the paddock slowly transforms into rows of white, pale and deep pink blooms, 30 stems on each plant. Once the buds unfurl, Nicky and Mac open the paddock over two weekends for visitors to pick their own.
“We have too many flowers and it was a way of not wasting them,” Nicky says. “Even then we’re flat out with people who, for $20, can pick an armful.”
A year ago they bought a deconsecrated 1890s church that backs on to their property. With a modern pavilion-style building beside it, this now functions as an events venue. It’s a good tie-in: “We already supply peonies for loads of weddings and now we’ve got the church, with quite a few bookings already for this spring,” Nicky says.
For both Mac and Nicky, growing peonies has been deeply satisfying. Mac always wanted to be a farmer. His father was a stock agent and Mac spent time with him on farms and saleyards, and on his grandparents’ farm near Kyneton. He studied agricultural economics and worked overseas, saving for a deposit on some land. When his grandmother suggested growing a plant he knew nothing about, he hit the books and the internet, and quizzed peony growers. He canvassed his mother, sister and grandmother for their opinion on colours.
“We narrowed it down to white, pink and dark pink,” he says. “Dad helped me put a few in… actually 7,000, and they went well.” Then Mac flew back to his job at a Tokyo investment bank, leaving the property under his father’s watchful eye.
He and Nicky met on a flight to Tokyo in 2002; Mac was heading back to Japan, while Nicky was heading back to her job with an architectural firm in Ireland. Nicky spent her early childhood in Victoria’s Apollo Bay and on her grandparents’ farm in the nearby Otway Ranges: “My grandfather had stockhorses — my dream is to have a stockhorse.” With so much in common, Nicky and Mac clicked immediately. “We wrote big email letters to each other after that until I thought I’d better come back and check him out.”
Six months after they met, Mac introduced Nicky to Spring Hill. “We went up to the farm and camped and planted more peonies.
It was decided — I’d move to Japan with Mac. It worked and we stayed there for another three-and-a-half years.”
While still in Japan they bought an adjoining four hectares with a century-old woolshed that had been partially converted to a home. They returned home for good in 2006 and started renovating. “There were lean-tos on the side and we stripped those off and fixed it up,” Nicky says. “Then we extended, as we intended to have children.”
Today life at Spring Hill allows them just the right balance between country and city, work and family and recreation. There are plans for a pony for William and Lucinda, and for Nicky, maybe that stockhorse. As for the peonies, they’ll soon be adding a red variety to the mix.
“We put them in the house, a mix of colours and textures, and I adore them all,” Nicky says. “The season is short, but we’ve found so many people love peonies too… We didn’t know that before!”
Spring Hill Peony Farm is at 1385 Kyneton Springhill Road, Springhill, Victoria. For more information, telephone (03) 5424 8470 or visit and