Businesswoman Wendy Liang’s favourite time of the day is when she gets to sit in her garden, taking in the pleasant scent of fresh soil and watching her young daughter chase butterflies. The 580-square-metre private garden was the reason Liang and her husband decided to buy their 13 million yuan (HK$15.5 million) classic French-style villa east of Beijing three years ago. The couple spent another 1 million yuan hiring a professional design firm to build a pavilion and winding walkways in the garden and plant magnolia trees, chamomile and begonias. “The expenses have gone beyond my budget. But that’s what you must pay for owning a beautiful garden, isn’t it?” said Liang, an IT manager with a media firm. More wealthy Chinese families are learning to appreciate their gardens. They install French-style fountains, introduce Japanese landscaping, create grassy lawns like those in America, and plant shrubs more commonly seen in English gardens. But many often lack gardening knowledge and are usually too busy to get involved in the actual garden work. Over the past decade, Ma Zhiyu, founder of The Gift Of The Peace, a Beijing-based garden design firm, has helped more than 800 Chinese households design and build their private gardens. “In the early years, we dealt with a lot of very rich clients. Most decorated their gardens just to show them off,” Ma said. “They had swimming pools, wine cellars and various kinds of expensive ornamental plants. They were happy to invite people to visit their gardens, but they had neither the time nor interest to care for the gardens.” Although China is no stranger to the garden culture – it emerged in the country some 3,000 years ago – the practice of keeping private gardens was disrupted in the past few decades because of war and political movements including the Cultural Revolution. It was not until the 1990s that the bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai began to construct villas again. Since then, private gardens have found their way back into the lives of rich Chinese families. While some families still use the open space in their backyards simply for storage, more are starting to transform their gardens into a serene escape from their busy urban lives in the country’s concrete forests. Compared with garden owners in Europe or in the United States – many of whom began getting personally involved in gardening in their childhood – most Chinese people have little idea of how to set up or take care of a backyard garden. Ma recalls a client who insisted on spending 80,000 yuan to ship an osmanthus tree from southern China to Beijing for his garden, despite Ma’s warning that the plant would not survive the northern city’s bitter cold weather. The tree died months later, he said. “Most of our customers have their first garden only in their 40s or 50s. Their main way of enjoying their garden is to lie in a chair, watch the flowers and sip a cup of tea,” Ma said. “Few would actually get down to prune the plants, mow the lawn or feed the fish. They think that’s the job of their domestic helpers or professional gardeners.” Zhang Xiangming, founder of a Shanghai-based garden design firm, said his clients’ taste for their gardens has been evolving. “In the past, people thought a garden should be built like a mini-version of classic gardens in Suzhou, featuring lakeside rocks, grottoes and Chinese-style pavilions. But as more people travel abroad and grow more familiar with Western culture, they prefer their gardens to be more functional and have a mix-and-match style,” he said. Depending on a garden’s size and clients’ needs and preferences, designers usually plan a dining area, barbecue zone, a children’s playground, swimming pool, pond and sometimes a vegetable patch, Ma said. “But in some cases, our Chinese customers want to use some ‘higher-grade material’ in their own gardens compared with the more commonly used materials in foreign gardens.” For example, Zhang said, some would reject using rubble stones for their walkways although they look natural and have good air and water permeability. “They would ask us to use marble, which looks more grand.” Zhang, who has spent seven years serving Chinese customers, said his top wealthy clients were usually not interested in their gardens and spent little time there despite spending a lot on them. “But this is also changing as more upper-middle-class families who really love gardening will be able to afford private gardens in future,” he said. Ma is also optimistic. “Rich Chinese are now busy making money, shopping for luxury goods and travelling the world. It will take time for them to slow down and discover that watching a bud bloom and leaves changing colour in their gardens is also a luxury,” he said.