Q&A: Master Gardener Jodi Torpey Shares Her Growing Secrets

January 13, 2016
Blue Ribbon Vegetable Garden
Ryan Donnell

Winter is the best time to start planning your spring garden. We caught up with award-winning master gardener, Jodi Torpey, and asked her about her secrets to growing prize-winning produce, her best advice for starting seeds indoors, the best time to transfer them outside and more. 

Edible: Your book shares the secrets to growing the biggest and best prizewinning blue ribbon produce. Torpey: What would you say are the best vegetables for beginners to focus on growing and why?
Any of the 10 vegetables I feature in my book are great for gardeners at any level, including beginners. That’s why I chose them. Even if gardeners are new to planting vegetables or they have limited planting space, they can still grow tomatoes, beans, peppers, squashes and just about anything else they like to eat. Although I’d suggest waiting to plant giant pumpkins!

Edible: Which vegetables have you had the most success with and has anything surprised you about growing that particular vegetable?
Torpey: I have a passion for peppers—the hot chile kind. I grow at least a dozen different varieties every season. What’s surprises me is there are still so many chiles I haven’t tried yet. I grow all of my peppers, even those that have won prizes, in containers on my patio. I also love growing heirloom tomatoes and all kinds of interesting eggplants and squashes.

Edible: What's something you wish you'd have known before starting your journey toward growing award-winning produce?
Torpey: The first thing I wish I would’ve known is how important soil is to growing a great vegetable garden. Good fertile soil, amended with compost or other organic matter, is key to growing healthy plants. The second thing is to select plants with a succession of maturity dates. That helps guarantee gardeners will have some early, mid-season and late-season vegetables. The third thing is that Mother Nature always has the final say. Even if gardeners do everything right, we can’t control the weather.

Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening by Jodi Torpey

Edible: You grow in Denver where winters are frigid and summers are really hot. For those of us experiencing a cold winter like yours, what should we be doing during the winter months to prepare our gardens for spring?
Torpey: Studying my book! Not only does it contain just about everything I’ve learned about growing vegetable gardens–including my master gardener training—the book also has tips and advice from more than a dozen other gardening experts, like award-winning author Amy Goldman Fowler, Jere Gettle of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Bruce ‘Onionman’ Frasier.

Edible: When should those of us in cold weather climates start growing seeds indoors for spring planting?
Torpey: It depends on what vegetable seeds you’re planting. Many seeds, like tomatoes, take about 6 weeks to sprout and grow into transplant size. Other seeds, like peppers and eggplants, take much longer. Seed packets give days-to-maturity information for each variety, so read and follow those recommendations. In my book I explain a simple way to schedule seed planting and transplanting dates by counting back from the estimated number of days to harvest. 

Edible: Selecting seeds can be overwhelming. What can be done to ensure you're getting quality, safe seeds?
Torpey: Gardeners can buy seeds from companies that take the Safe Seed Pledge. Companies that sign this voluntary pledge are letting gardeners know they’re committed to selling non-GMO (genetically modified) seeds. Most companies list the pledge on their website or in their seed catalog.

Edible: What's your best advice for starting seeds indoors?
Torpey: Seed starting is fun, it saves money, and it gives gardeners more options. If you’re a beginner, start small to keep it manageable. You don’t need any fancy equipment to get started. For years I used regular fluorescent shop lights and started seeds in recycled plastic containers in my basement.

Also, you don’t have to start your whole garden from seeds. I typically start seeds for the extra-special varieties I can’t find at garden centers. And remember there are many seeds, like cucumbers, zucchini and beans, that can be planted directly in the garden when the weather warms.

Edible: Finally, what's the best time to transfer your plants outside for spring planting so they can ripen in time for summer fairs and competitions?
Torpey: Again it depends on what you’re planting. Cool-season crops, like cabbages and onions, can be planted earlier in the spring, while warm-season crops, like tomatoes and peppers, have to have warm days and nights to grow. Find the dates of the fairs you want to enter and use the number of days to harvest to get an idea of when to transplant. 

Edible: Any final words of inspiration and encouragement for growers of all skill levels?
Torpey: Seeds want to sprout and plants want to grow! Jump in and get started with the vegetables you enjoy eating. And don’t be afraid to make a mistake. There’s not a single gardener I know who hasn’t made mistakes along the way. That’s what it takes to become a prize-winning gardener.