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A Rebel with a Cactus: An interview with Leo Chance

by Timber Press on June 20, 2012

in Gardening

A variety of cacti flourish with wildflowers and more traditional rock garden plants in the author’s garden. © Leo Chance


For over 30 years Leo Chance has been cultivating his knowledge of cacti and succulents while living in the unpredictable climate of the Colorado Rockies. He gardens in zone 5 where frosts come early and late, and temperatures can be very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. Most plants are difficult to grow in this area. Yet, he perseveres, and he does it with cacti and succulents, plants that many thought could only survive in the southwest desert.

“I got the idea about gardening with cacti & succulents in 1976 when my wife & I bought our house. We wanted to do some kind of unique garden,” said Chance. “On a trip to San Diego we ate in a restaurant that had a small rock garden, composed of succulents on the patio. It was so different from a typical Colorado garden, but so pretty. When we got home every nursery in the area said it couldn’t be done here. Something in my rebellious nature had to prove them wrong.”

When Chance began his quest to successfully grow cacti and succulents in Colorado there were very few who had attempted such a feat. Now, through “30 years of making mistakes and killing expensive plants,” he has become an expert in the field. Leo Chance passes on his experience and knowledge with his new book Cacti & Succulents for Cold Climates.

Q:  What is remarkable about your book it that it takes a plant that is iconic of a particular landscape and makes it accessible to people in many other parts of the country. What would you say is the most “exotic” cacti or succulent you have seen growing outside of the southwest?
A:  Agaves and the tall tree-like yuccas were the first plants to really surprise me when they proved themselves to be adaptable to cold climates.

Q:  Do you have a favorite cacti or succulent in your garden?
A:  The magic of this type of garden is that when one species is through flowering another is just starting. From season to season my favorites change.

Q:  A zone 5 climate can be tough on many plants, not just cacti and succulents. Do you have any words of wisdom for other gardeners working with difficult climates?
A:  Visit parks & public gardens. Refer to books & magazine articles. See what works for your neighbors. Improve your soil to suit the type of plant material that you want in your garden. Have an idea of what you want to be the end result before you get started.

Q:  How has a movement toward more xeriscape and watersmart gardening effected the way people think about cacti and succulents in their own landscape?
A:  I work in a garden center, so I see first-hand the trends in gardening in this part of the country. The number of cacti & succulents in gardens here increases every summer. It is no longer unusual to see these plants in people’s gardens.

Q:  Can cacti and succulents only be grown in dry or arid climates?
A:   There are a number of cacti that are native to climates that could be considered wet. Also many of the yuccas are happy with typical garden culture. Even in climates that have high rainfall there can be microclimates such as under the eaves of a building that lend themselves to dry gardens. Soils can be amended to drain quickly and be more succulent friendly as well.

Q:  If you could give only one piece of advice to a cacti or succulent grower what would it be?
A:  Top of the list is to consider plant placement. Think about the ultimate size of spiny, dagger-tipped plants when they are placed in the garden. These plants can be more enjoyable to see than to touch.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Cathy June 8, 2015 at 3:46 pm

I have a problem growing string of pearls (bead plant) indoors. What happens is that the stems will shrivel and dry up at the base where it comes out of the soil. The rest of the stem is fine for awhile but eventually the “beads” shrink and shrivel until the whole vine is dead. As soon as I notice this happening I cut it off and re root the stem in water and place it back in the pot. They grow for awhile but then it happens again. I have it in a brightly lit southern facing window that gets plenty of bright sun. I water it when the soil becomes dry never letting it get to dry or too moist. Please tell me what is causing this.

2 Leo Chance June 9, 2015 at 11:19 am

It may be that your plant is getting too much light. The reason the Senecio you are growing is a popular houseplant is that it can thrive with less than full sun.
When you water are you sure you are watering the entire root ball?
Adding water is not the same as really watering. Do you water more during the growing season? If not that can cause problems.

3 Cathy June 23, 2015 at 6:17 pm

Thank you so much for your response! I will move it to an area with somewhat less sun. I “think” I’ve got the watering routine down, i.e, don’t just give them little sips of water, but water ’em well, and let them mostly dry out and do it again. But I think I may not be paying enough attention to when it is their “the growing season.” I am in NJ zone 6 and these are indoor plants. Please advise when I should water more? Again, I so love this plant, want it to do well and I very much appreciate all your help!

4 Leo Chance June 24, 2015 at 6:00 am

Watch your plants. Through the months when days are short, water only often enough to prevent dehydration. As the days grow longer you will see your succulents respond to more hours of sun by starting to grow. At that time, increase the number of times you water. During the growing season plants should not be allowed to go as dry as they do when they are dormant.

5 Brian Ridder August 15, 2016 at 12:32 pm

Hi John. We’re asking around, but so far, haven’t found an answer that will be of help to you. We’ll keep trying. In the meantime, good luck to you!

6 Addison Biederman July 29, 2018 at 4:44 pm

Hey Leo!
Just came across your book and I feel like you may be a good person to ask a few questions to! Although I am not growing it outside I have been growing a Trichocereus Spachianus (Golden Torch) for about 3 years now and was doing extremely well up until this spring. I live in Denver and have been growing from a southern facing window. This winter against my better judgment I moved him under an LED that I am growing basil with, he is just getting too big for my southern window. At first I thought he seemed to love it and about 8 pups started to shoot out from the base which I assume was caused by the LED. But lately the original 5 arms have been very droopy and have been growing thin with white spines as opposed to the golden. The original 5 arms were standing up great until the pups started coming. Not exactly sure what is going on and not sure what to do. I am just under the impression that if they are drooping like that with no root rot then it has to be lack on sun. But I also feel like they were getting plenty of sun from the LED? which caused the pups? I feel pretty confident about my watering but I could be wrong. Could it be possible that the new pups are just sucking up more water and energy before it can make it to the main ones? I have been considering removing a few of the original arms to see what happens but also a little nervous about it. I’m really hoping to get in contact with you so I can better explain my situation. If I don’t hear back then I may just have to make the drive down to Colorado Springs! Thank you in advance!! and thanks for being a pioneer!

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