I bought a couple of native azaleas at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens fall sale. Yesterday, I planted them. Fall is the perfect time for planting. Soon the rains will start, and dormant plants will spend from now till spring growing a good root system.
I start by digging a hole at least twice as wide as the width of the growing pot, but only about 6-12 inches deep. This soil I break up as finely as I can using my shovel tip. Although Birmingham has some terrible soils, I resist the temptation to amend the soil. Soil that is amended too heavily only creates a really sweet spot that roots are reluctant to spread out from into surrounding native soil. Also, over-amended soil quickly breaks down, resulting in a planting depression which may remain waterlogged. Instead, I turn into the planting hole the compost and leaves which lie over the hole.
When I have broken up the soil as best I can, I pull the plant and examine the roots. I do this GENTLY and shake off as much of the planting media as possible and tease the roots out of their tangle. This is when you should look for those roots running around the root ball. These are called girdling roots, and will be a source of growth issues for your plant in the future. If I find these, I try and stretch them out, but if I fail, I just cut them off. A dense root ball made up of many such roots should be left at the nursery. Better nurseries have no problem with you asking if you may examine the root mass on potted plants.
With my hands, I remove enough soil from the center of this hole to accommodate the root ball. I spread out the roots over the hole and then pull soil back over the roots. I ALWAYS plant a little high and shallow (except for bulbs), because I try to avoid creating a situation resulting in waterlogged plants, which invariably die.
Next, I press air out of the planting using my feet. I then check visually to make sure that I have planted a little above grade. If not, I pull out the plant and replant, being more careful.
I water deeply with a slow drip.
My mulch is always a generous ring of pine straw, and I am careful to not pile straw against the plant itself. Pine straw dissipates the energy of rain, insulates the roots, and shades out weed seeds. It is less likely to wash off than pine bark, and is sustainable.
Finally, I make sure to water thoroughly a couple of times a week until rains begin. Learn to trust your fingers to check for soil moisture levels.