Garden Variety


Tom Castimore (gardener) and David Finkelstein (musician)

Income: $46,000 (1998)

Health Insurance: Castimore, none; Finkelstein covered by mother

Rent: $395/mo.

Utilities: $60/mo.

Phone: $75/mo.

Food: $720/mo.

Transportation: Castimore, none; Finkelstein $63/mo.

Their interrogation sessions go something like this. Finkelstein looks Castimore in the eye and says: “You sure it won’t take more than nine weeks?”

Castimore looks up at the ceiling. Finkelstein is tough.

“Do you know for a fact that the hollyhocks are not going to keel over?”

I don’t know. I don’t know.” Castimore puts his head in his hands.

So it goes when David Finkelstein, 38, plays devil’s advocate to determine how much his partner, Tom Castimore, 46, should give as an estimate to landscape so-and-so’s garden.

Until Castimore met Finkelstein, who is actually a musician and hardly knows any more about money than Castimore, Castimore was not making as much as he could with his gardening business. An ornamental gardener who “will not do boring vegetable gardens” or lawns— “they drop dead on you”— Castimore designs and installs ponds, plants, shrubs, and flowers, and has a predilection for white and purple foxglove.

For years “I had more work than I could handle, but I really didn’t know how to do estimates and halfway through a job, I’d end up losing money,” Castimore said. So they got a book. Night became day as they read How To Open and Operatea Home-Based Landscaping Business. The chapter on “Learning To Live With Record Keeping” was their favorite. Castimore estimates his profit increased the first year by about $6000.

He grew up in middle-class Pleasantville, Reader’s Digest headquarters, studied figure painting at the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston, and moved to New York in 1978 “to be an artist but that was back when I was very naive.”

Finkelstein came into Castimore’s life at a Radical Fairy event in l986, when Finkelstein looked across the room and “recognized him as being an important person in my life.” Six months later Finkelstein moved in with Castimore.

Finkelstein, the son of an Upper West Side psychiatrist, graduated Sarah Lawrence, thinking he could never make a living as a musician but that he might as a piano tuner. Little did he know he would be making $20 to $30 an hour on the ivories playing Bach and Chopin for ballet classes and improvisational music for modern dance. All this music is merely to finance his experimental theater, which is currently in the form of a public access TV show, Lake Ivan Exists,at 9:30 on Tuesday nights, Channel 16. In a recent episode, Finkelstein, wearing a dashiki with blue peasant slippers and silver eye makeup, and his costar, James Martin, in a sanitation uniform, talked to each other at the same time, with Finkelstein going on about a three-alarm fire while Martin talked about the political persuasion of his mother-in-law.

How much does this cost? “About $250 an episode for the actors, the editor, and the tape. The studio and equipment are free. I separate the finances from my personal life because my theater is incorporated as nonprofit even though it’s mostly funded by me. In the last few years I’m starting to get grants.”

How do they live so economically? “We don’t have a fax, a computer, or a TV even though I have a TV show.” Castimore eats cheddar cheese popcorn for lunch and walks to his Brooklyn garden jobs with his green duffel bag full of rakes, clippers, and loppers. But the $395-a-month, 700-square-foot Caroll Gardens apartment that Castimore got in 1978 is the real secret.

As for retirement? “We should have a plan but we don’t yet.” They just got a savings account. “It’s got $12,000.” When they go on vacation, it is to Castimore’s mother’s house in central Vermont, where she moved 25 years ago— East Barnard, pop. l83 and “very Norman Rockwell. It may be where we might retire. Why? Because it’s nice.”