We have studied the epitaxial growth of self-assembled Ge quantum dots when a submonolayer of carbon is deposited on a Ge wetting layer (WL) prior to the growth of the dots. Using atomic-force microscopy combined with optical techniques like Raman and ellipsometry, we performed a systematic study of the role played by thermally activated Si interdiffusion on dot density, composition and morphology, by changing only the growth temperature TWL of the WL. Strikingly, we observe that higher dot densities and a narrower size distribution are achieved by increasing the deposition temperature T WL, i.e.by enhancing Si interdiffusion from the substrate. We suggest a two-stage growth procedure for fine tuning of dot topography (density, shape and size) useful for possible optoelectronic applications. © 2006 IOP Publishing Ltd.