Three-stage nucleation and growth of Ge self-assembled quantum dots (SAQDs) on a relaxed SiGe buffer layer has been studied. Plastic relaxation of the SiGe buffer layer is associated with a network of buried 60° dislocations leading to an undulating strain field. As a result, the surface possesses three different types of sites for the nucleation and growth of Ge SAQDs: over the intersection of two perpendicular buried dislocations, over a single dislocation line, and in the region beyond one diffusion length away from any dislocation. Ge SAQDs are observed to nucleate exclusively over the dislocation intersections first, followed by over single dislocation lines, and finally in the region far away from dislocations. By increasing the Ge coverage at a slow rate, the prenucleation stage at the various sites is observed. It appears that the varying strain field has a significant effect on both the diffusion of Ge adatoms before SAQD nucleation, as well as the shape evolution of the SAQDs after they form. Moreover, two distinctly different self-assembly mechanisms are observed at different sites. There exist denuded zones free of Ge SAQDs adjacent to dislocation lines. The width of the denuded zone can be used to make direct determination of the Ge adatom diffusion lengths. The partially relaxed substrate provides a useful experimental vehicle for the in-depth understanding of the formation mechanism of SAQDs grown epitaxially in the Stranski-Krastanov growth mode. © 2003 The American Physical Society.