Dons midfielder Stacy Long smashed a stoppage time penalty winner just seconds after Torquay top scorer Rene Howe had levelled with a last-minute header, his 11th goal of the season.
Paul McCallum got the Dons off to a flyer with his sixth minute headed opener, cancelled out by Lee Mansell's close-range reply two minutes later.
Visiting skipper Mat Mitchell-King restored the Dons advantage with a 33rd minute angled drive before the late drama.
Ardley said: "Three points is a great way to start 2013 but now we must build on it. We got off to a good start but then they scored almost immediately.
"I thought we had thrown it away at the end again but we managed to pass the ball better in stoppage time than we did when we were 2-1 up. Sometimes that sort of thing happens when you are down there, and confidence is low.
"We needed this win. We had just come off the back of a bad result and performance to Oxford and we have done a lot of work in the last few days, just trying to get a bit of togetherness and to bounce back.
"On that (muddy) surface it was always going to be a game that would be littered with mistakes. We just about threw it away and then managed to get it back again. It's just one of those games where we will take anything we can get at the moment.
"As soon as they got the goal from the corner I thought that we had thrown it away and was worried they would be the team to push on and maybe try and get the winner.
"We have made a habit of going behind in games so hopefully this will be the start of taking the lead more often than we have been."