I'm a tree planting man. Every November since 1986, when our little neighborhood group decided to put out a few baby trees, I've been ordering trees from tree farms, pulling trees off flatbed trucks, hauling trees around my neighborhood, digging tree holes, and dodging crazy old ladies who think I'm a vandal coming to dig up their flowerbeds.
If you've got an urge to plant a tree, now is the time to do it. I know, I know, a lot of you people like to plant things in the spring. In spring, it's warm, leaves are turning green, and it just feels good and natural to dig in the dirt and plant things. Believe me when I tell you: With the exception of a few species, trees like to get planted in the fall. That way, they get to establish their roots during cool, wet weather. That gives them a better chance of surviving when hot, dry weather comes.
If you do a little tree shopping, you'll find that you can buy trees small enough to grow in a coffee cup, mature 20-foot trees that arrive on the bed of a whopping-big truck, and everything in between. I say buy trees that are about six feet tall. You ought to be able to plant a tree that size all by yourself.
Now, I know some of you are thinking: Why not just get one of those 20-foot jobs, and have some instant shade next summer? Well, I'm going to tell you: First of all, those big trees cost a load. You could easily spend over $1,500 - $2,000 putting a big tree in the ground. Second, after about five years, the six-foot tree should be half to two-thirds the size of the 20-foot tree. Finally, there's a fair chance that the 20-foot tree will die within a year or two, because most of its roots got chopped off when it was moved. The smaller tree, which arrived with most of its roots still attached, is much more likely to live. But heck, if it dies, you're only out about 30 bucks.
Right now, in my front yard, I've got a Yoshino cherry tree that I planted in 1989 when it was about five feet tall and as big around as my thumb. Now it's about 24 feet tall, and as big around as my freakish size-8 head. I bought that tree the way I buy all my trees-balled and burlapped.
I know, balled and burlapped sounds like something that happens at one of those S&M fantasy camps. But when we're talking about trees, it means that the tree was harvested with its root ball intact, and the root ball was wrapped in burlap. Balled and burlapped trees are easy to handle, and easy to plant.
Here's how you do it: Dig a hole that's just a little shallower than the height of the root ball. When you're done planting, you'll want the root ball sticking up out of the ground just a little. Dig the hole about twice as big around as the root ball. If the root ball is about a foot across, you want the hole to be about two feet across.
Before I go any further, you power-tool aficionados, listen to me: Do not dig your planting hole with a gas-powered post-hole digger. Two reasons: 1. If you run into a root or a rock, that power digger can break your arms, or throw you through the air like a rag doll. 2. Power tools leave the sides of the planting hole glazed. Most likely, that'll keep new roots from growing.
If you're anal-retentive, and don't want to leave any dirt on the ground, throw the dirt from the hole onto a tarp. I leave this part out. I figure there's nothing wrong with leaving the ground a little dirty.
Gently drop the tree into the middle of the hole. Move the tree around until it's close to plumb. You don't want to leave it leaning. Next, using a knife or a pair of hand pruners, cut the burlap off the root ball, and push the burlap down to the bottom of the hole. If there are nails in the burlap, take them out, and put them in the bottom of the hole. (There's nothing wrong with burying burlap or nails.)
Now, put some dirt back in the hole. Fill the hole about two-thirds full. Do not stomp the dirt down. Use a hose or a watering pail, and run water onto the dirt. The dirt will compact gently around the root ball. Put the rest of the dirt into the hole, and repeat watering.
Put two or three inches of mulch on the ground around the tree. Keep the mulch a few inches away from the trunk. If you don't, the mulch will likely cause the trunk to rot.
Make sure the tree gets one inch of water a week, either from the sky, or your garden hose. Keep up the watering for a year and the tree will probably live longer than you will.
One last thing: If you're thinking about planting a Bradford pear tree, don't do it. They look like plastic Lego-town trees, the blossoms stink, and there are already enough of 'em in strip-mall parking lots. Besides that, they split when they get old. Plant an oak. Or a dogwood.