Mary Samios-Russell ’84

Summer is here, and gardens throughout the Joliet area are blooming with plants from Contrary Mary’s Plants & Designs in Minooka, Illinois, owned and operated by USF alumna Mary Samios-Russell ’84. The gardening guru didn’t always start out in horticulture though – she actually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science.

Samios-Russell always thought her career path would lead to either practicing law or social services, but as fate would have it, the nature lover would open a family-owned greenhouse specializing in unusual flowers and unique fruits and vegetables that are a joy to grow, see and taste.

From Political Science to Opening a Greenhouse

When Samios-Russell graduated from USF (then the College of St. Francis), she worked in the criminal justice system, first as a victim’s advocate and later as a legal advocate and trainer. Along the way she picked up a master’s degree in criminal justice from Chicago State University and then returned to USF for its Addictions Counseling Training program.

“USF was a fantastic school to attend; I took lots of evening classes so many of my classmates were already professionals and I learned and was exposed to much through them also,” Samios-Russell noted.

She also worked in domestic violence advocacy and counseling, then substance abuse. However, after time in the field, she itched for a change. While working in counseling, she indulged her love for plants and nature by attending horticulture classes at Joliet Junior College.

“Plants are like small miracles and never cease to amaze me,” she remarked.

After her grandmother’s passing, Samios-Russell bought her grandmother’s farm, where her greenhouse business became a reality. Her husband, Charlie, built the greenhouse.

“My fantastic (don’t tell him I said that) husband Charlie is a huge part of my business as he can build and fix anything, and has also given me the encouragement (and occasional kick) when I need it,” Samios-Russell gushed.

The duo started growing plants on a small-scale, selling their produce at farmers markets. Soon, it became a full-time business.

Helping Others and Giving Back

You’ll find both expert and novice gardeners at Contrary Mary’s, and you’ll find Samios-Russell helping them discover new plants and giving gardening tips.

“It really warms my heart to see people, especially young people, get excited and awed about nature. It has been my privilege to help many of my customers discover their ‘inner greenness.’ Many of my customers come to me as ‘newbies,’ afraid of failure, and end up growing fantastic gardens. They just need a little encouragement to try,” she says.

That isn’t the only way you’ll find Samios-Russell giving back. She also donates plants to local organizations with gardening initiatives. Recently, she provided several tomato and peppers plants to USF’s new employee-run garden, which hopes to provide produce to not only campus, but also to a local food pantry.

“Giving back to others is extremely important to me. I truly believe in the ‘it-takes-a-village’ philosophy and try to do what I can to lend a helping hand,” she noted.

Reflecting Back on USF

Although her career may have shifted from what she attended USF for, Samios-Russell reflects back on USF and how it fit with her learning style and values.

“Small classes and much discourse is the way I learn best; kindness, gentleness, and charity are also so very important to me and are hallmarks of your school,” she noted.

For more information on Contrary Mary’s, visit contrarymarysplants.com.