In the story, a middle-aged woman named Mary Anstruther and her husband George have recently moved to a large house in the countryside. Mary Anstruther decides that she wants to convert part of the house's spacious grounds into a rose garden. Doing so requires removing an old wooden post that is firmly embedded in the soil. Miss Wilkins, whose family lived in the house before the Anstruthers, tells Mary Anstruther that the spot that she has selected for her rose garden used to be the site of a summer house. Miss Wilkins' younger brother once fell asleep in the summer house and had a vivid dream in which he was condemned to death by a cruel judge. After the old wooden post is removed from the ground, George Anstruther has a similar nightmare and other strange things start to happen.
An abridged version of "The Rose Garden" is read by Robert Powell in the fifth and final episode of the BBC TV mini-series Classic Ghost Stories. The episode was first shown on British television on December 30, 1986. A fifteen-minute radio play based on the story, part of the mini-series M.R. James Ghost Stories, first aired on BBC Radio 4 in the United Kingdom on December 27, 2007.
George and Mary Anstruther have recently taken up residence at Westerfield Hall, near the village of Westfield in Essex. Mary Anstruther has decided that she wants to change part of the house's grounds, an area near some bushes and next to a path which leads to the church, into a rose garden. The spot which Mrs. Anstruther has selected for her rose garden has some rotten wooden benches on it and an old oak post which has been driven firmly into the ground. They will need to be removed before a rose garden can be planted. George Anstruther explains his wife's wishes to Collins the gardener. Collins says that it will be easy to remove the wooden benches but that taking the post out of the ground will take several hours. Nevertheless, Mrs. Anstruther insists that the post be removed.
That afternoon, Mary Anstruther is visited by Miss Wilkins, who had lived in Westerfield Hall before the Anstruthers purchased it. Mrs. Anstruther shows Miss Wilkins the place where her rose garden is to be planted. Miss Wilkins says that there used to be a summer house there and that she and her younger brother Frank used to be afraid to go there alone.
Miss Wilkins says that once, when her brother was eight years old, she found him asleep in the summer house. He had such a terrible look on his face that she thought at first that he was dead. When she woke him up, he screamed. Frank remained agitated for the rest of the day. He did not sleep that night and somebody had to sit up with him. Frank was not able to talk about the dream he had until several days later. It was a very unusual dream for an eight-year-old boy to have. In Frank's dream, which seemed to take place at some time in the past, he was on trial. The judge appeared to have already decided that he was guilty. One of the questions Frank was asked was, "Is this your handwriting?" although he was not allowed to see the letter in question. The judge managed to distort all of the answers that Frank gave to make him appear guilty. In the next part of the dream, Frank was somewhere else and had a feeling of anxiety and hopelessness. In the final part of the dream, Frank was taken outside in front of a crowd of people on a winter's day. He was forced to walk up onto a wooden platform on which there was a small fire. At that point, Miss Wilkins woke up her brother.
Later that same year, Miss Wilkins and her brother were in the summer house again. Miss Wilkins sent Frank to the house to see if tea was ready. He was away for longer than she expected. While her brother was gone, the sun began to set and Miss Wilkins began to hear distant angry voices. She remembers hearing the words, "Pull, pull. I'll push, you pull." She found that the voices became clearer when she approached a wooden post, which at that time was part of a bench. She made some marks on the post with her scissors. Miss Wilkins sees that the marks she made are still on the oak post now.
Soon afterwards, Miss Wilkins' father had the summer house pulled down. Miss Wilkins remembers the old man who pulled it down telling her father not to worry because "he" was "fast enough in there" and nobody would let him out. Miss Wilkins imagines that her parents would have explained what the old man meant to her when she was older. She never found out what the man was talking about because both her mother and father died while she was still very young. Miss Wilkins later asked some people in the village about it but they either did not know or would not tell.
In the morning, Mary. Anstruther says that she heard voices during the night and thinks that intruders must have come into the house's grounds. When the grounds are examined later, no signs of an intrusion are found. Mrs. Anstruther also says that she was kept awake by the sound of owls. She tells her husband that one large bird must have been perched outside their bedroom window. George Anstruther says that he had a nightmare. At the start of the dream, he was burning some papers in an old-fashioned room before he was arrested. He found himself on trial but noticed that nobody was speaking in his defense. The judge took every opportunity to attack him. The judge managed to twist every answer that George gave to make him appear guilty and laughed at one of George's responses. George says that he is certain that the judge in his dream once really existed and must have been a, "most horrible villain". In the next part of his dream, George found himself waiting for help which never came. He then found himself being taken outside in front of a crowd on a winter's day. George realized that he was about to be executed by burning for high treason. At that point, he woke up. Mary Anstruther did not tell her husband about Miss Wilkins' brother's dream. She did, however, think about it during the night and thinks that George must have somehow read her mind.
Collins the gardener suddenly fell ill the previous afternoon, immediately after removing the wooden post from the ground. When inquiries are made about Collins' health, his wife says that he did not mean any harm and that, having lived in the area longer than anyone else, he should have known better. She also makes reference to, "a lot of nonsense".
Mary Anstruther goes to the site she has selected for her rose garden to sketch the trees and buildings she can see. She continues to sketch until sunset. As she is leaving, Mrs. Anstruther sees what she takes at first to be a Guy Fawkes Night mask in a bush. She then realizes that it is not a mask but a man's face. She can see sweat on the forehead and a single tooth in the open mouth. Mary Anstruther runs into the house and faints.
To recover from their unpleasant experiences, George and Mary Anstruther take an extended vacation in Brighton. While they are there, they receive a letter from the Essex Archaeological Society. The letter asks if, at Westerfield Hall, there is an original engraving, a copy of which is enclosed in the letter. The engraving is of a judge who became Lord Chief Justice during the time of King Charles II. The Lord Chief Justice retired in disgrace to Westfield where he is said to have died of remorse. He was buried some distance from the church and a wooden stake was driven into his grave. When she sees the engraving, Mary Anstruther suffers another serious shock. She spends the winter abroad to recover. The face that Mrs. Anstruther saw in the engraving was evidently the same face that she saw in the bush.
George Anstruther returns to Westfield and speaks to a local priest. The priest has heard tales of the sounds of owls and voices associated with the judge's grave before. The parish record for the judge's burial is a simple one which makes no reference to a wooden stake being driven into his grave. The priest notes, however, that an addition, in a different handwriting, was added to the burial record many years later. The additional words are the Latin phrase, "Quieta non movere", which can be translated as "Do not move that which has been set still".
- In the five-part BBC TV mini-series Classic Ghost Stories, first shown on British television in December 1986, actor Robert Powell reads a different short story by M.R. James in each episode. The other stories read in the series are "The Mezzotint", "The Ash-tree', "Wailing Well" and "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad".
- Other episodes of the December 2007 BBC radio mini-series M.R. James Ghost Stories are based on "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad", "The Tractate Middoth", "Lost Hearts" and "Number 13". Each episode is introduced by Derek Jacobi in the character of M.R. James.