Words: Janelle Agee
Images: Becca Simonds
Nestled among the nuances of historic downtown Colorado Springs lies a hidden gem: the world’s largest collection of cacti grown in a cold climate. Unbeknownst to many in the Springs, one of the gardening greats in the realm of succulents and cacti quietly tends to his garden - right around the corner. Leo Chance, author of Cacti and Succulents for Cold Climates, is an expert in the field of growing cacti and succulents in cold climates. From a street-view, Leo’s front yard appears to be an extemporaneous and undevised array of Colorado wildflowers. On closer inspection, however, the intricacies of each purposefully placed cacti and succulent become visible throughout the towering wildflowers.
Leo's gardening journey has roots cultivated in his early childhood. Growing up, his family had a sustainable garden which provided for the household’s entire produce needs. He spoke fondly of the garden.
“I honestly didn’t know you could buy food at grocery stores until I was about 10,” he said.
Given his early exposure to gardening, Leo decided to make a garden of his own in the late 1970’s, but he wanted something unique. A visit to southern California - where ubiquitous cactus gardens grow effortlessly – triggered his attention. As he and his wife drove home through Arizona and New Mexico, they noticed an increasing number of cacti and succulents along the way. Upon arriving home, Leo set out to create his own scaled-down version of a cactus garden.
On a mission to forge his masterpiece, Leo spoke to local garden centers and experts. The overwhelming response he received from each was that his quest was utterly futile.
“Every nursery said it can’t be done. It’s the wrong climate, it can’t be done,” Leo said. “But I knew there were cacti that grow here because I grew up here, and I was a clumsy kid, so I knew there were cacti that could grow here! I just started asking questions and finding out where things grew.”
Fueled by curiosity and a somewhat competitive desire to prove the collective, proverbial ‘them’ wrong, Leo began to devour available research on cacti in cold climates. His original reference was a book about cacti in Colorado written in the 1940s, which he checked out from the library multiple times.
Leo then made friends with the owners of the largest seed source for desert plants in the world, located in New Mexico. One of the company’s employees grew up in Parker and was passionate about pushing the limits of what could be done with cross-climate growing. Back in Parker, he had experimented some with growing different types of cacti, and he was excited to assist Leo with his endeavor. As a seed company, quality control required sprouting about 100 plants of each seed to make sure it grew well. Over a period of time, the company in New Mexico started sending these sprouts to Leo to experiment with, and so was the birthing of his garden.
What started as an experimental garden grew into a hobby, and eventually into groundbreaking research on cacti and succulents grown in cold climates. With each new species, he would plant enough to see if it was a fluke, or if it could really grow. Despite Leo's successes, it doesn't mean he's never found plants that couldn’t grow here.
"I’ve killed tens of 1000’s, there’s tons that won’t grow here!” Leo said. “Nobody really knew what could be done here.”
Leo’s persistence paid off. One day, he got a phone call from Panayoti Kelaidis, Senior Curator and Director of the Denver Botanic Gardens Outreach, requesting to come see his garden. As Leo guided Panayoti through the garden, Panayoti’s astonishment echoed in his response as he exclaimed “Nobody knows half this stuff can grow outside!” Leo’s relationship with Panayoti and the Denver Botanic Gardens continued, as did his research. After heavy persuasion, Leo’s first book was published.
An artist’s work is never done and Leo’s work did not culminate with the publishing of his book. With resources around the world, he continues to discover new plants that can grow in Colorado’s cold climate. Two years ago, the Curator of South African Botanic Gardens attended one of Leo's talks.
“He came up to me and said, ‘I’m impressed. What can I do to help you?’,” Leo said.
Contacts like that consistently work with Leo, allowing him to attempt growing plants not currently in cultivation in the United States. Given the specialty of expertise Leo has acquired, he remains overly humble and attributes his success to those dedicated to make his research a success.
“People have been so nice to me it’s just flabbergasting,” he said.
Wandering through Leo’s garden is an experience unlike any other. It's like a private tour in the White House of cactus gardens. Leo’s down-to-earth personality intertwines beautifully with his incredible knowledge about his plants. For anyone who comes to see it, Leo can educated them of the various rare and extraordinary species lining his walkways. He can give the scientific name, origin and random facts about every plant. Despite the huge number of plants, Leo doesn't have a favorite.
“It’s that collector’s mentality you know," He laughed. "If I lose anything, I pout.”
The rarest of Leo's collection is a tiny plant barely discernible amidst the rocks and taller plants. Residing in his garden for about 10 years, this Maihueniopsis Ovata cactus came directly from Patagonia, laying claim as the southernmost-growing cactus in the world.
Aside from tending to his backyard garden, Leo is very involved with the Cactus and Succulent Society, giving talks and seminars all over. He is currently in the process of writing several books and is ever-seeking to push the limits of what was once considered unattainable. His book Cacti and Succulents for Cold Climates is available locally at Barnes and Noble, and online through Amazon. Leo’s passion and unabridged dedication to his garden shines through his work like a lighthouse, cutting through the fog of today’s certainty with a beacon of hope in discovering the impossible.